Obama's Presidential Library Belongs in the Cloud

Today's patriotic controversy, appropriately enough given the holiday, concerns presidential libraries. Specifically, the location for the one that will be built for Barack Obama once he leaves office.

Late last month, a foundation was created to oversee the whole enterprise; the hope is to select a home for the library by early 2015. "Our mission is to build a library that tells President Obama's remarkable story in an interactive way that will inspire future generations to become involved in public service," says Marty Nesbitt, an Obama pal and one of the appointed site diviners.

Fair enough. But what exactly would reflect this? Another overdesigned, Federalist-modernist mishmash built from personally meaningful and narratively useful materials (Hawaiian koa, Chicago River sludge) that strains, like an inaugural address, to reach for history?

And where to put it? Prospective locations have lined up fast and furious, just as they do to host the Olympics or the next season of "Top Chef."

There's Hawaii, where the president was born, supposedly. (Joke!) Or Occidental in Los Angeles, where he started college, and Columbia in New York, where he finished. There's Harvard, where he went to law school, and Chicago, where he taught, community-organized, married, started a family and set out in politics. Good choices all. Tough call. (There's also Santo Fransiskus Asisi, the Catholic school Obama attended for a few years as a boy in Indonesia.)

"No specific site, institution, city or state is advantaged over another at this point," Nesbitt says. "The ultimate site will be chosen on the merits."

Obama and his friends might want to set their sights a little higher -- or at least approach this decision more creatively: Instead of one ultimate site, why not choose several?

There are undoubtedly good reasons, as archivists will attest. The larger point is that in Obama's case, a presidential library structured like a chain of islands (as opposed to a city-state) would actually be appropriate -- reflecting the arc of his life.

Obama has defined himself as a man of many parts, the first amalgamated president. The number of venues lined up to store his papers and reconstruct his Oval Office testifies to this. And it makes him unique. It's hard to imagine Jimmy Carter's library outside of Georgia, or George W. Bush's outside of Texas. Obama's, in contrast, could be pretty much anywhere.

Obama was also the first truly digital president, at least in his campaigns. His organization understood the power of social media, microtargeting and disaggregated channels of communication. Information could be pitched exactly where it needed to go; it could be everywhere and anywhere. A technological revolution helped get him elected, even if it has been of less help governing.

A related revolution has come to libraries. Requests go not to the stacks but to the cloud. What a library offers is often stored outside its walls, which means many libraries -- small, inexpensive, lightweight ones -- can host the same material. What if the first truly digital presidential candidate were to have the first truly digital presidential library?

Yes, presidential libraries are also museums -- places people want to visit: to see firsthand the loop of inky presidential script on an important piece of legislation, to commune with fellow political junkies, to get that souvenir photo of your junior executive aspirant sitting at the replica of the Resolute Desk.

But replicas are by definition reproducible, and actual historical artifacts can be shared (at any rate, after eight years of Obama, there will be enough to go around). What would be wrong with having a few shrines/centers/libraries? The reason people want them is because they bring business -- and status -- to communities.

So spread the wealth, Mr. President. It's not such a bad message for someone so focused on addressing wealth inequality. And as the only modern president since John F. Kennedy who was a writer before he was a candidate, use this opportunity to recast the established narrative: Your history is rooted not in one place but in many. May your library be the same.

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--Editors: David Shipley, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net