Obama’s presidential library envisions a new purpose for public libraries

South Side hub.
South Side hub.
Image: Obama Foundation.
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A crowd of 300 politicians and community leaders gathered at Chicago’s South Shore Cultural Center on Wednesday (May 3) to get a first peek at the plans for former US president Barack Obama’s presidential library.

“I wanted to be an architect when I was kid,” joked Obama as he unveiled the architects’ renderings for his permanent archive. Slated to open in 2021, Obama’s library reflects his desire to create a citizen “hub” in the city’s South Side where he worked as a community organizer from 1985 to 1988. The project’s designers, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners and Interactive Design Architects, proposed a three-building campus with a lantern-shaped structure—etched with Obama’s iconic 2008 campaign logo—in the center serving as a museum. Two single-story structures will house a community center and possibly a branch of the Chicago Public Library.

“We will have basketball,” added the sports-loving former president.

“We will have basketball.”
“We will have basketball.”
Image: Reuters/Kamil Krzaczynski

After leaving office, Obama expressed his desire to create a “presidential center for citizenship” as a training ground for the next generation of civic and political leaders. “What we want this to be is the world’s premier institution for training young people and leadership to make a difference in their communities, in their countries and in the world,” explained Obama, describing his library—or “the Center,” as he calls it—like a tuition-free leadership school. Former first lady Michelle Obama asked the public to send in ideas for the design of the Center in January. “This will be your Presidential Center just as much as ours,” she said in a Jan. 20 taped address.

The creative direction behind Obama’s citizen-focused presidential archives mirrors the design of the world’s best public libraries. With more books and library materials available online, libraries like Denmark’s Dokki1—voted “public library of the year“ in 2016—are building in more amenities to respond to a range of community needs. Instead of being dominated by book shelves, “citizen space” libraries have meeting rooms, art installations, classrooms, performance stages, makers’ workshops, and playgrounds.

All digital library

Departing from the template of the other 13 US presidential libraries, Obama’s archive won’t have any of his papers. All unclassified documents will be digitized and his files will be stored in an offsite location owned by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Switching from paper to electronic records is a hallmark of Obama’s presidency. He pushed for digitization of medical records, federal records and government transactions to modernize and streamline services. During his second term, he invited Silicon Valley techies to serve a “tour of duty” via the US Digital Service (a.k.a “Peace Corps for nerds“) housed in the White House’s basement. They took on projects such as simplifying the process for military veterans to access health benefits, untangling the process for getting replacement green cards, and hack-proofing the US Department of Defense’s information system. (The Trump administration announced earlier this week the USDS will be involved in a greater government tech modernization effort called”American Technology Council.”) Obama’s 2009 official portrait is also the first presidential photograph taken with a digital camera.

The Obama presidential library will be located within Jackson Park (named after the seventh US president Andrew Jackson). It was the site of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair designed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, best known for New York City’s Central Park.