PublicHistoryRoundtable Accidental Access: Serendipity in Presidential Archives

AHA Session 132
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Chicago Ballroom VIII (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Jannelle Warren-Findley, Arizona State Univ
Robert Clark, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
Michael Devine, Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
Karl Weissenbach, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
Jannelle Warren-Findley, Arizona State University

Session Abstract

In the past few years, three long-established presidential archives have announced well-publicized additions to their collections that have been discovered in unlikely places.  In 2003 the Harry S Truman Library in Independence, MO announced the discovery within its own stacks of a previously unknown diary that the president kept in the back of an old date book.  And in 2010, the Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower libraries both announced important new “finds.”   The papers of Grace Tully and Missy LeHand, Roosevelt’s two close personal secretaries, came into the Roosevelt Library after more than five years of negotiation and a donation involving an Act of Congress and presidential signature.  Less dramatically, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s famous “military industrial complex” farewell address, more than ten speech drafts were discovered in cardboard boxes stored in the Minnesota boat house of Ike’s long-deceased speechwriter, Malcolm Moos.  Panelists from each presidential library will describe the circumstances under which the “new” materials were added to the publicly accessible presidential archives and what new light—if any—they shed on their respective presidencies.

Chair Jannelle Warren-Findley will engage the panelists and audience in a discussion of how the limits to our understanding of the past should inform practice in public and academic history from three perspectives:   first, the healthy skepticism that all historians should adopt with regard to the completeness of their sources; second, the challenge to (their own) established narratives that historians must face when presented with new materials; third, the contingency of oral history, which often substitutes for documentary research today.

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