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Hail to the Chief(s)!
Lessons from
Presidential Libraries


Until the creation of presidential libraries, the papers of U.S. presidents often were lost to historians as they passed from a president to his heirs and then to museums or private collectors. Today, presidential libraries hold those materials, make them available to the public, and preserve them for future generations. As Presidents' Day approaches, discover how you can use online resources from several presidential libraries to teach students about former presidents of the United States. Included: Activities using materials from ten presidential libraries and museums.


When President Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal and presidential papers to the federal government in 1939 and pledged part of his Hyde Park estate for the construction of a library, he began a tradition of establishing libraries and museums to house the papers of former presidents. What he could not have foreseen was the access all Americans one day would have to those materials through the Internet! Celebrate this Presidents' Day with activities featuring online resources from presidential libraries.

Herbert Hoover
Archiving more than just Hoover history, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum provides many excellent materials for teachers, including a detailed resource about children's author Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose daughter Rose Wilder Lane was Hoover's first biographer and good friend. In this section of the site, students can view The One, Two, Threes about Pioneer Life: A Little House Counting Book, an online counting book about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and a terrific inspiration for their own counting book assignment. Encourage each student to choose a favorite historical figure -- preferably a president! -- and construct a counting book or ABC book highlighting that person's life.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
Presidents make decisions that impact the lives of American citizens every day; even decisions that seem inconsequential can have surprising -- and unintentional -- effects. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum illustrates that fact in its feature The Year We Had Two Thanksgivings, an explanation of the turmoil created when Roosevelt decided to change the date of Thanksgiving. Read the article and brainstorm with students the following questions: What must a president keep in mind when making even simple decisions for the nation? What should be the president's guiding principles and goals when making decisions? Prioritize the ideas developed during the brainstorming session by asking students to vote on their relative importance. What do your students think a president most needs to remember when making critical decisions?

Harry S. Truman
Visitors to presidential libraries often are treated to a short introductory film that shares some of a former president's background and the highlights of his presidency. The life of Harry S. Truman -- and his path from a family of modest means to the White House -- is a perfect tale to be told in film. Invite your students to explore Truman's biography in Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times, and then have them create a plan for a new introductory film presentation for the Truman Presidential Museum and Library. Students might identify photos, uncover facts, and prepare an outline of key concepts visitors should learn about Truman.

Presidential Libraries
To check out links to materials about the presidents and learn more about the national system of presidential libraries, see the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) Presidential Libraries Web site.

Dwight D. Eisenhower
Among many other accomplishments, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports to increase emphasis on sports and fitness. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum shares the physical activities of nine presidents in the online exhibit titled "Flexing the Nation's Muscle." One of the library's online exhibits is a Presidential Timeline. The timeline examines the important events of each presidency. For whom was the Little Rock integration crisis a pivotal event? Which president is most closely associated with the Peace Corps? During whose presidency did the Berlin Wall fall? The answers to those questions can be found in this timeline.

John F. Kennedy
What are the common aspects of presidential libraries? Many portray the basic information about the president with a brief biography, an in-depth life story, family photos, displays of gifts of state, and more. Less visible than the physical memorabilia, but just as influential, is the way the library chooses to reflect the president's life and the times he lived in. Have students check out the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum to see how the Kennedy era is illuminated through Tour the Kennedy Library. Have the students note the influences of the 1960's that are reflected in the library, and the connections made between the times and the Kennedy White House that truly make a visitor feel that he or she knows the man. Ask students, "What would a perfect library for our current president be like?" Have them become familiar with the background and tastes of Barack Obama and other research, and then ask them to design a library for the current president. Ask: Where might the library be built, and what should it look like? What would Obama's biography include? What are the pivotal decisions he has made as president so far? What will visitors want to learn about First Lady Michelle Obama and the girls, Sasha and Malia?

Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson, who assumed the presidency after the death of John F. Kennedy, described a "Great Society" for America that would improve civil rights, education, the environment, and housing. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum offers a Kids page that includes Johnson's "Great Society" speech. After your students have studied the speech, have them research Johnson's life and determine how Johnson worked toward the Great Society he advocated. The documents America 1908-1973 and Biography will help. Ask students: Is the United States nearer to becoming the "Great Society" today than it was during Johnson's administration? Why or why not?

Jimmy Carter
Children might believe that the many gifts received by our nation's leader are a "bonanza" for the commander-in-chief, but the president accepts those tokens on behalf of the American people. Although the first family is allowed use the gifts while in office, they place them in the care of a government agency when they leave the White House. A good sampling of Head of State Gifts can be viewed at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. In addition to accepting gifts of state, President Carter also asked governors to submit gifts from their states that could be given to visiting dignitaries. Invite your students to select items that represent your state and that would make appropriate gifts of state. Discuss students' selections or have students write essays about their choices.

Ronald Reagan
Presidential libraries offer the public a unique experience -- the opportunity to see another side of the president, survey his personal communications, and peer into his life. During his term as president, Ronald Reagan received many notes from children; thanks to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, students can read those kids' letters today. In a 1942 article, "How to Make Yourself Important," the former president laid out two guidelines for achieving importance: love what you are doing and believe that what you are doing is important. Invite students to investigate the Reagan presidency, paying special attention to his communications with children and his 1942 message to kids. Ask: If he were still president, what might Ronald Reagan say to today's children? Encourage students to write an article to today's youth from the point of view of this former president.

George H. W. Bush
One exhibit of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum focuses on his first lady. Barbara Bush: An Extraordinary Journey tells the story of the first lady's life from early childhood in Rye, New York, to marriage, family, and public service with her husband. Family literacy was an important cause for Barbara Bush during her tenure as first lady, and she continues her work to promote it even today. She has written children's books and a best-selling autobiography. Invite students to get to know the former first lady and author through the online exhibit and Biography of Barbara Pierce Bush. Then invite them to create an original biography of Barbara Bush for younger kids.


Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace
Although it is not a part of the NARA, the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, provides background about Richard Nixon and features his restored 1910 birthplace.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum
Check out the developing teaching resources related to Bill Clinton's presidency.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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Last updated 01/05/2015