Treasures in Waiting Educational opportunities at NARA Presidential Libraries and Regional Records Centers in Waiting:

“Fools! Bureaucratic fools! They don’t know what they’ve got there.”
—Indiana Jones to Marion Ravenwood


Lee Weber

In the famous concluding scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Speilberg gave us an indelible image of what U.S. government warehousing might be like. As a workman first nails shut the crate containing the Ark of the Covenant, and then forklifts it into an endless sea of similar crates in a huge warehouse, we get the impression that no one can ever possibly access all the secrets held by the government, let alone understand them. Fortunately, that strong visual image is not at all accurate in describing the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter NARA). This arm of the federal government not only knows what it has, but where it is, and how to access it quickly.

Recently, NARA has been extending a helping hand to schools and educational researchers. Sadly, educators have not been taking full advantage of the vast resources of this government agency. For example, the Kansas City Regional Archives Center holds all the following: the original letters from Buffalo Bill to the Plains Indians tribes, contracts negotiated with the tribes, related maps, and an original color poster of the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show. In addition, they have original records concerning the Battle of Wounded Knee, but there have been only two requests from student groups requesting to see them in the last ten years.1 Surely, a middle school social studies teacher could craft fantastic lessons using these resources. Some presidential libraries that offer grants for K-12 educators to attend summer workshops and create original teaching units similarly have no takers.2 What can explain this lack of use?

In the United States, NARA operates ten presidential libraries and sixteen regional records centers. Each location has incredible holdings of original documents and artifacts that could be primary sources for outstanding lesson plans and class projects. The government is doing its part. At the beginning of fiscal year 2000, each of the ten libraries had a formal educational program in place, with at least one dedicated staff member per library to head educational outreach programs.3 Outreach programs at NARA’s regional records centers are more limited, but each has a director of archival operations who coordinates educational opportunities.

Two cooperative programs have been initiated using the resources of several sites at once. “America Since Hoover” is a facsimile collection of documents from each of the presidential libraries in existence (Hoover through Carter) when the program was created; duplicate sets of these documents for use by student groups are available at each library. More recently, at the Internet Conference in February 2000, staff from all ten libraries brainstormed ideas for creating and developing programs online.

Teachers too often view NARA locations primarily as field trip sites. Indeed, over 175,000 students in grades K-12 visited the presidential libraries and museums in 1999.4 Guided and non-guided tours of the museums are the centerpiece of the public side of NARA. However, teachers need to start looking beyond the public persona of these institutions. The purpose of this article is to heighten the awareness of educators across the country to these “treasures in waiting,” and to trigger their creative talents in creating lessons and units of study using NARA resources.


Finding Treasure

Teachers can begin by accessing NARA’s presidential libraries website ( and its regional records centers website (, which are portals to all the websites within the system. These websites are well designed, easily navigated, and full of useful information about policies, holdings, and programs. Each site lists an e-mail address for quick and easy communication.5 The sites are frequently updated and include a growing number of records and activities.

NARA regional records centers are all similar in their holdings and educational opportunities. Each center holds original copies of federal agency documents as well as federal court records for all states in its region. In addition, each center typically offers public programs that include workshops on archival research, genealogy, and teaching history using original documents. All of the centers are placing large amounts of information—particularly court records, military service records, and genealogical records—online.

Many centers work closely with metropolitan and state historical societies and local universities to offer scholarly symposia on historical issues. The Great Plains Center in Chicago, for example, hosts an annual Civil War Symposium in conjunction with the Chicago Historical Society, Loyola University, and several Chicago area Civil War Roundtables. However, most of the records centers have small staffs and some lack an educational specialist—meaning that a teacher must make the first move in exploring a center’s research possibilities.

The ten presidential libraries, on the other hand, all offer extensive educational programs. As noted before, guided and non-guided museum tours are the resources most frequently used. All presidential libraries offer hands-on learning activities for visitors, primary source collections designed for K-12 students, and summer workshops for teachers and other educators. Most have summer student workshops as well. Nearly all work closely with the National History Day program for which the Office of Public Programs maintains a website (

Many presidential libraries offer curriculum-coordinated lessons free to all schools in their immediate area. Several work closely with state education departments and universities to coordinate their programs with state and national standards and benchmarks.6 A description of some of the unique programs for students and teachers provided by the various libraries follows.


Herbert Hoover Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa

How many people are aware that the original copy of “The First Four Years” installment of “The Little House” stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the Hoover Library? The penciled tablets are among the museum’s most prized collections. The museum has created a special “Dear Laura” interactive program that allows students to write to Laura via the Internet and receive answers written by staff members.7 An archival puppet program is available for tour groups. The Hoover Library also coordinates a “History Camp,” a week-long history lab using presidential documents in the “America Since Hoover” collection. “The President’s Troupe” is a new outreach program that sends museum staff into schools to conduct historical impersonation lessons. The library is actively working to expand its website and Internet activities.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum,

Hyde Park, New York

The FDR Library is currently building a Visitor/Education/Conference Center that will have three Internet classrooms geared to K-12 students, and facilities for television and video conferencing. Library staff members have also prepared over fifty research packages on key topics for use by students. Many of the most popular packets are now available via the Internet.


Harry S. Truman Library and Museum,
Independence, Missouri

The Truman Library is one of the most ambitious and active educational resource centers among the federal sites. It is currently creating “The White House Decision Center,” set to open in fall 2001. The Decision Center will house eight meeting rooms fashioned after the West Wing of the White House. Students can role-play executive decisions using library document collections and audio-visual resources. In addition, the educational staff has created student research packets similar to those at the Roosevelt Library, all available online. These include some of the great decision-making events of the century—for example, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, Dropping the Atomic Bomb, Desegregation of the Military, the Creation of NATO, and the Marshall Plan. For local school districts, the library also provides “Project Whistlestop,” a cooperative educational technology program featuring online activities and teaching ideas. The Truman Library has also undertaken many cooperative programs for teachers in conjunction with the University of Missouri-Kansas City.


Dwight D. Eisenhower Library and Museum,
Abilene, Kansas

The Eisenhower Library has one of the most unique educational programs. It gives foreign language students the opportunity to study historical documents in their original languages, such as German government records from World War II. In addition, the staff has created the WWII Spy Kit, a research activity focusing on WWII documents in its possession. The Eisenhower Library is currently developing plans for a Museum Learning Center that will provide computer interactive lessons and a virtual learning website. The Eisenhower Library is particularly active in the loan of film and video resources to schools, a program funded by the Eisenhower Foundation.


John F. Kennedy Library and Museum,
Boston, Massachusetts

From its inception, the Kennedy Library has been at the forefront of educational programming. The Kennedy Library Foundation funds the largest and most elaborate educational program of any NARA facility. The library sponsors a national essay contest, art performances, and community service programs. Educational materials are available free in print and online. Included in the offerings are “Who is John F. Kennedy,” a history/language arts curriculum project designed for elementary students, and “The Presidency of John F. Kennedy: Crises and Opportunities,” suitable for junior high civics/history classes. Three separate high school offerings currently in the development stage are titled: “Launching the Sixties: JFK and the Presidency,” “Facing a Moral Crisis: JFK and the Issue of Civil Rights,” and “Foreign Affairs in the Cold War: The Cuban Missile Crisis.” Library staff members develop political debate programs for students during each election year. They also offer “Forums” that bring well-known government officials and media commentators to debate current issues, as well as exceptional programs for teachers offered through the University of Massachusetts, Boston.


Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum,
Austin, Texas

The Johnson Library has extensive holdings and much of its documentary information is available online. However, programs designed for educators and students are limited. The Johnson Library has only had an educational specialist on staff since November 1999.8 The new specialist has several programs in the developmental stage, including the creation of learning packets on both President and Lady Bird Johnson. These packets are being designed to meet Texas State curriculum standards. Summer workshops for teachers, similar to those offered at other presidential libraries, are also being planned.


Nixon Presidential Materials Staff,
College Park, Maryland

The Nixon Center does not serve the normal function of a presidential library and museum, but rather, as a warehouse of presidential documents and audio-visual materials from the Nixon presidency. The most widely used resources of the center, as one might imagine, are those connected to the Watergate Scandal. Transcripts of the famous tapes are available online, as are many audio recordings of the famous tape collection. There is no educational program.

There is a Nixon Library, but it has no connection with NARA. The Nixon Foundation runs this library at Yorba Linda, California. It has created an Internet forum to debate the legacy of Nixon online, and offers summer research programs for students on-site. Information about the Nixon Library is available at its website (


Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum,
Grand Rapids, Michigan

From its inception, the Ford Library has been active in education and outreach activities. It was the Ford Library that created the “America Since Hoover” collection during the 1980s. Student groups throughout the country benefit from this project each year.9 The current education director works closely with Grand Rapids, Michigan, and other area schools to develop special learning packets. This library also works closely with local, state, and national historical societies to develop educational programs. The Ford Library offers a complete copy of the President’s Daily Diary for educational use. Library staff have placed a large number of collections online and continue to expand that avenue. One of their most ambitious projects has been the Presidents’ Day 2000 program, which focuses on the bicentennial of the White House. It includes a video, television program, and website geared toward middle school students.10


Jimmy Carter Library and Museum,
Atlanta, Georgia

The Carter Library strongly targets research skills in its educational program. At least four different types of workshops are available to students, both on-site and at area schools, aimed at teaching research skills through use of the library’s extensive collections. Like several of the other libraries, the staff at Atlanta has developed classroom-ready booklets and packets for starting research on key topic areas. In addition, the Carter Library has developed a special puppet program to teach early elementary children about the presidency. Mock elections and legislative simulations are also available. The Carter Library was one of the first presidential libraries to develop programs for special needs students. The library has an extensive website, including a “Kid’s Corner” specially designed for K-12 educational use.


Ronald Reagan Library and Museum,
Simi Valley, California

The Reagan Library has a relatively young educational program started in 1998. The library staff created a teacher advisory committee at that time to meet regularly with new educational staff. Most of the Reagan Library educational programs are still in the developmental stage, but several are currently active. Curriculum guides are available for schools for several grade levels. The library has developed a comprehensive program for high school economics students, but it is currently available on-site only.


George Bush Library and Museum,
College Station, Texas

Finally, the Bush Library has made several interesting contributions in the area of new educational programs. It is the only presidential library to currently house an Internet-ready computer for educational program use. The library conducts mini-research workshops each summer for Talented and Gifted students. Library staff members have created a legislative simulation called “Congressional Session.” They have also developed the “The Presidential Quilt” program, which
provides opportunities for individual students and entire classes to create theme-based quilts as part of historical presidential research projects. Like the Johnson Library, the Bush Library works closely with the Texas State Department of Education to develop materials geared to state social studies standards. It also works cooperatively with Texas A&M University to create cultural storytelling programs.


Treasures in Use

Once educators know what is available from NARA, how can they best make use of it? Certainly, any K-12 teacher, curriculum specialist, or social studies university professor could create a myriad of learning activities without further assistance, but a few suggestions follow.

In the area of American government and politics, the possibilities seem endless. Some obvious examples would be a study of documents related to dramatic presidential decisions, such as Truman’s decision to send troops to Korea, Eisenhower’s handling of the Suez, Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution or his withdrawal from the 1968 election campaign, and Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative.

In the area of geography and global studies, students might examine maps and photographs to get the “inside view” behind key foreign policy decisions. For example, they could analyze the Berlin Airlift, the Marshall Plan, the U-2 spy plane incident, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or military plans from the Vietnam War vis-a-vis the Desert Storm campaign.

In the study of legal issues and constitutional rights, teachers and students could create their own mock trials or debates using documents from presidential libraries. For example, a world tribunal could charge Truman with “war crimes” for dropping the atomic bomb, or the U.S. Senate could hold an impeachment trial for President Nixon. Teachers could use transcripts from the NARA Regional Records Centers to recreate courtroom trials of famous cases, such as the students’ rights cases of Tinker v. Des Moines, Bethel v. Fraser, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, and TLO v. New Jersey. Class debates could focus on FDR’s court-packing plan, Eisenhower’s decision to send troops to Little Rock, or Ford’s pardon of Nixon.

In studying local or regional history, students could use maps, deeds, and other land documents from the NARA Records to develop special projects, such as tracing the history of towns, counties, and states.

Perhaps the most intriguing possibilities for teachers and students lie in across-the-curriculum projects. A government teacher could team with a language arts teacher to design a lesson where students examine the writing styles of presidents, including their use of persuasive language in speeches, executive orders, and personal letters. For example, did the public pronouncements of FDR during World War II match up with his personal assessments in private letters? Do the famous Nixon tapes show consistency or conflict with Nixon’s public statements about the Watergate Scandal? Was JFK’s masterful use of humor in his speeches original or borrowed?

Team-teaching projects could extend to other areas. A middle school math, science, and/or art teacher could co-direct a project on the standardization of road signs and highway construction standards during Hoover’s tenure as Secretary of Commerce. The Manhattan Project offers unique opportunities for collaboration with high school math and physics instructors. Economics teachers may welcome a chance to deal with original documents comparing FDR’s New Deal economic philosophy to “Reaganomics.” Finally, foreign language teachers may be thrilled to work with social studies classes to examine WWII documents in French, German, Russian, or Japanese. In short, the possibilities abound for cooperative projects with desciplines beyond the social studies.

Once teachers know what they’ve got there, the sky’s the limit on making use of NARA’s treasures.



1. Dianna Duff, Archival Director of the Kansas City Regional Archives Center, personal interview with the author (June 5, 2000).

2. Mary Evans, personal interview with the author (May 30, 2000).

3. Office of Presidential Libraries, “Presidential Library Educational Programs: An Examination of K-12 Educational Programs at Presidential Libraries,” unpublished report (College Park, MD: NARA, 2000).

4. Ibid., 2.

5. The sources for subsequent information about educational programs at NARA sites were e-mail and written responses to survey questions sent to all libraries and records centers during spring-summer 2000, and official NARA publications that accompanied mailings to the author.

6. “Presidential Library Educational Programs,” 2.

7. Mary Evans.

8. Marsha Sharp, personal letter to the author (June 7, 2000).

9. The author coordinated the Northern University High School Project during summer 1994.

10. Barbara Packer, personal letter to the author (July 12, 2000).


Lee Weber is an instructor at the Malcolm Price Laboratory School, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls.