Will the Obama Library Be Located in Chicago or Hawaii?


As President Obama continues to politic himself to a great American presidency, the politics to encase his groundbreaking legacy have begun to move in full force.

The Presidential Library is a relic; a biography and museum of sorts meant to showcase and highlight the highest office in the United States. 

The Office of Presidential Libraries, nestled under the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), administers the nationwide network of thirteen presidential libraries, dating back to the 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. The Office of Presidential Libraries is responsible for the establishment of a Presidential Library Project, which upon completion is transferred to the Government. The library, together with all its holdings, becomes the property of the American people.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt formally began the Presidential Library system in 1939, when he donated his personal and presidential papers to the federal government for posterity. Roosevelt's decision stemmed from his firm belief that presidential papers are important documents of American heritage, and are of pristine value to public study and research of American history and government. President Harry S. Truman, following his predecessor, decided to build a library of his own and urged Congress to pass the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, establishing system of privately built and federally maintained libraries. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 mandated that documents recording the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the president would become the property of the Government, solidifying presidential libraries as the repository for presidential records. Today, under the Presidential Libraries Act of 1986, all presidential libraries require private endowments and non-federal, non-public funds to build.

Four years out from the end of Obama presidency, and the pressing question has already been asked: Will his presidential library be situated in the sunny shorefronts of Honolulu? Or will he choose to locate his library in the confines of Chicago, the city his name is most associated with.

So what are the arguments for either location? Despite hard lobbying in recent months by officials from the University of Hawaii and representatives multiple Chicago groups– including my alma mater, The University of Chicago – the president himself has said he has not made up his mind. The politics of this courtship have and continue to be priorities for these communities. In Honolulu, University of Hawaii officials have visited nearly all of the 13 established libraries and Hawaii State legislature has previously passed two resolutions in 2010 pushing for conditions optimum for hosting Obama's library. Meanwhile, University of Chicago officials recently met with Susan Sher – the first lady's former chief of staff, Obama family friend, and close adviser to University of Chicago president – at the George W. Bush Presidential Library

Both cities are eager to reap the economic benefits that a Barack H. Obama Presidential Library would garner, given his historic place in the annals of American history. Beyond the undeniable economic boon, one that would revitalize the struggling South Side Chicago communities, there is the symbolic allure of being recognized as the true "home" of the 44th president.

The Hawaii Legislature called it "a matter of great state pride that President Obama is the first Hawaii-born citizen to hold that high office." Hawaii advocates point to Obama's vaunted pivot to Asia in the framework of American foreign policy and point to a library held in the nation's Asia-Pacific base as powerful and appealing symbols. Chicago proponents point to the myriad of connections he shares with the city and the University, which even has a URL (Obama.uchicago.edu) dedicated to the former professor. His current residency in Chicago, his wife Michelle's upbringing in the city, the birth of both his daughters in the city, his twelve years as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, his work as a South Side community organizer, and his time spent in the Illinois legislature are prime reasons for the Windy City to be the ideal place.

While the South Side offers more options and connection, Hawaii offers untouched land and a unified, clear location for the Library. However, Obama could follow previous presidents who have created presidential centers that expand beyond a library and include museums, think tanks, or foundations and then split the difference by locating some structures in Honolulu and others in Chicago. Or, depending on his likability over the next four years, he could simply build two libraries given his fundraising prowess.

Like any bid, it will come down to presentation, potential, and the politics of negotiation. As a resident of Chicago and a student at the University of Chicago, I would be enthralled to have the library of the first president I ever voted for located blocks from my school. But, ultimately, home is wherever the president's heart is, and I wouldn't mind another reason to visit Hawaii…

One thing is certain, whether Beach side or South Side, the 14th Presidential Library will most certainly garner an unprecedented number of visitors over the course of its lifetime.