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Andrew S. Terrell
Readings in Public History
Fall 2009

Archive Report - George Herbert Walker Bush Library and Museum

1000 George Bush Drive West, College Station, Texas 77845

Telephone: 979.691.4000

Archive Hours: 9:30-4:30 Monday-Friday


The George Herbert Walker Bush Presidential Library and Museum is located on the

Texas A&M University campus in College Station, Texas. The archives of the forty-first U.S.

President span three floors within the complex.

On the ground level lies the administration offices and check in / reception area for

researchers. There, visitors will be introduced to an archivist and technical assistant that will

assign each researcher a badge. The elevator to the second floor drops off visitors in the hallway

where some of the repository is located in addition to a new wing where researchers are signed

in, assigned lockers, and seated for a brief introduction to the archives and guidelines if they are

first time visitors. Once one has been issued a research card, the orientation may be bypassed for

two years. The third floor houses the archivist work stations and additional collections but is

usually restricted to staff members.

Researchers are seated in a reading room on the second floor with a few desks spread

across the room. This room is where all of the photocopying, microfiche viewing, and box

browsing takes place. Although adequate desk space and viewing stations are present, one must

of course navigate the indexes (also known as “Finding Aids”) of the library in order to retrieve

any documents. The index for collections is divided mostly into two book shelves of large three-

ring binders. The archive publishes a few of the more commonly requested files on their

website, but it is infrequently updated. Because of the lack of time between the forty-first

presidency and today, many files are still classified. Literally thousands of files which have been

released also will fail to show up in the indexes online or in the binders because they have not

yet been properly sorted and catalogued. However, the fading microfilm collections are slowly

being digitized along with newly released documents in hopes that one day the entirety of the

archives will be more efficiently searchable.

Within the binder-bound indexes, are the enumerated locations of each collection broken

down into sub series, boxes, and folders. The indexes are daunting, and can seem vague. At first

glance, they do not seem to follow any logical (perhaps alphabetical or chronological) order. The

exception to this would be daily press briefings, hourly updates and other collections where

chronology is inherit. Because of the disorder in the finding aids indexes, first time researchers

may find it difficult, initially, to locate relevant material in a timely fashion. The indexes are,

however, very logical once the proper collection and sub series are located. Arguably, finding

the right boxes to retrieve is the hardest task in archives. Once a list of up to eighteen boxes has

been created, the technical assistants will bring the requests back on a cart.

The Bush Library describes their collections as an “endless hoard of boxes in a climate

controlled facility.” Indeed, the archives are immense and as of August 2009, remain largely

unaccessible. The majority of the released documents are catalogued and organized for

researchers a few weekends each year by volunteers and the archivists. The lag between official

release, and public availability is typical for any contemporary presidential library. For my

purposes this semester, I have thus far centered on a two major collections: the newly released

and digitized German Reunification files, and the daily press updates. The German

Reunification files have appeared in the archive index summer 2009. Because this collection is

mostly digitized, it is easy to copy any document. The favored method of the technical assistants

is to download pages to a flash drive from the viewing station’s computer. Each DVD disk is

packed with over four gigabytes of digital images and files mostly arranged chronologically.

However, there are very few collections offered in digital mediums. The daily press updates, for

example, are still housed within the traditional boxes with one week worth of files filling each

box. To copy these files requires a little more than a mouse click, unfortunately. Researchers

have the option to photocopy the documents at a stifling price of fifty cents per page, or are

allowed to use one’s own camera. Should a researcher desire to keep digital copies of their

documents, and not have a camera, the library can loan a six megapixel camera. For each

compact disc filled with images, the library charges merely five dollars. The transition to digital

research is useful,

however many

researchers still prefer

hard copies of the

documents from the copy

machines. Digital

images are the obvious

choice of this researcher.

The main rationale being

that computers can store

more pages of documents and archive them more efficiently than binders can.

In order to help researchers make digital copies of the files quickly, the Bush Library

built a camera stand. Most cameras attach to it like a tripod stand, and the lens can be

manipulated to take pictures ranging from letter-sized documents to expanded telegram or legal-

sized papers. The Library has created a permanent outline attached to a table top for novice

photographers--and even experienced point and click users--which helps in aligning sheets.

Additionally, this speeds up the process of copying documents. Because the archives is not open

as long as the museum, any time saving capability is invaluable. All one has to do once the lens

is focused, is click. The image above best shows the outlines for the different sized documents.

As one can see, the table top is able to hold any size paper up to legal size. Technology in this

manner allows for literally thousands of documents to be digitally captured in one day’s work.

Preservation of documents are of utmost importance to the Bush Library. Older

documents are often times digitized and enhanced to preserve the information. Researchers are

not allowed to bring much more than a laptop into the reading room to avoid messes, ink blots,

or markings on documents. The technical assistants maintain a very strict order in reading,

browsing, and copying documents. For example, only one document may be removed from a

folder at one time. Likewise, only one folder may be removed from a box, and one box from the

cart. By ensuring such strict policies are enforced, the library is able to maintain each folder’s

contents. They encourage researchers to keep their hands clean and only to touch the outer

extremities of each document. While the archives has a vast collection of microfilm and digital

copies of many documents, the majority of the archives is not preserved in such fashion; many

collections are accumulated, loose-leaf sheets stacked within the folders. Because of the

standards in document browsing, many older images and text are kept in pristine condition

visually. Content preservation is equally important as document preservation. One personal

instance involved a briefing file dated 14 August 1989 but was found the 15 August folder.

However, the document could not be moved because only one folder was accessible at one time.

Clearly, the restrictions in document viewing exist in hopes of avoiding multiple occurrences like


The reading room is also home to a respectable ancillary library. The public papers of

every president since Dwight Eisenhower, for example, are stored towards at the front of the

shelves near the finding aids binders. The other rows include secondary literature on presidents

and other key figures since the 1950s. A heavy emphasis is on foreign relations since Bush

himself became more of a foreign policy official before being elected to the presidency in 1989.

The majority of the secondary literature is about Bush himself. He was a very prolific writer and

many scholars have edited collections of his letters and speeches into many volumes. The

presumed reason for such a large supplementary collection in the archives is because Bush’s

career in Washington included two terms in the House of Representatives before he was

appointed to higher executive positions. Therefore, the supplementary collections must cover the

extent of his career in government. Also, the nearby ancillary collection helps in creating a

broader picture of the history before Bush was elected President of the United States in 1989.

Overall, the archives at the Bush Library have few setbacks. As mentioned earlier, if a

researcher finds a document clearly in the wrong folder, it cannot be moved. While the

intentions for preserving contents within the boxes is necessary, such a minor fix should be

possible. While the digital revolution has become indispensable for researchers, it harkens

careless copying. For instance, rather than copying minimum pages for a topic, one can fall into

the trap of copying hundreds, even thousands, of extraneous material just because it is so easy to

do so. Ultimately, the majority of even digital documents will eventually be printed out

anyways. Perhaps the battle between digital copies versus hard copies is ultimately an individual

decision or preference. Nevertheless, having microfilm digitized does speed up the process of

finding desired information and obtaining a quick copy.

Another, perhaps minute, setback would be the regulation only allowing one to see one

document at a time. Because of this ordinance, researchers who do not simply want to copy

things to review later are faced with the inability to compare documents side by side. This is

troublesome mostly if browsing, or comparing, daily updated collections. For instance, if one

wanted to compare the headlines of a story over the course of forty-eight hours, it would require

going back and forth between documents within two folders. The reading room is furnished with

writing paper and pencils to take notes, but side to side comparison of documents is impossible.

Each time one has to leave the building for lunch it takes a usual twenty minutes to return

to the reading room. It is not unreasonable for the archives to refuse food and drinks in the

reading room, but because no eating establishment is in the complex researchers have to drive to

a local restaurant and go through the first floor sign-in process repeatedly. Experienced

researchers avoid the nonsense with the lobby by eating a large breakfast and staying in the

reading room during open hours because access to the archives is only a few hours five days a

week. Nonetheless, first time visitors are bound to be disgruntled by the sign-out and sign-in


The request forms for boxes are very small (half the size of a standard letter sheet) so

handwriting issues come into play with some technical assistants. An easy resolution would be

to make the request forms electronic, or at least on larger sheets. The irony of the request forms

is that the desk personnel end up writing the requests into the computer to keep on file for each

researcher. Why not skip a step and make the requests electronic as well?

Of no fault of the archives, Freedoms of Information Act requests are slow. It can take as

little as a year, but as much as four years to even get a response to a request made at the

President’s library. Understandably, issues of national security for such a recent presidency will

remain classified. However, a four year turnaround even on smaller requests is excessive.

Researchers are limited to eighteen boxes on a cart at one time. When the researcher is

positive the majority of the contents of these boxes is crucial one may go through all eighteen

boxes quickly. A new request form then must be submitted only creating additional “dead” time

in the reading room. All the requirements are in place to maintain an orderly environment, but

there must be a more efficient way of pulling boxes. Perhaps, the archive could allow a larger

number of boxes to be prepared on carts and only wheel the maximum eighteen out at one time.

By preparing multiple carts, researchers could avoid the down time between carts and additional

request forms.

Researchers are not allowed to bring their own notes (or any paper for that matter) to the

reading room. Frankly, this is frustrating. Disallowing pens and food is understandable, but one

could not ascertain a legitimate reason for prohibiting paper. Presumably, this is to keep papers

from getting mixed in with the documents. However, how is that any different from the reading

room offering their own paper? Perhaps another reason is to keep documents from being mixed

with researcher notes, even if by accident. Yet, how hard would it be for the desk personnel to

review all materials being brought in if only notes, and comparing it with papers leaving the

reading room?

Overall, the archives at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library are easily accessible

and the staff therein help to create a user-friendly atmosphere. All the aforementioned setbacks

are trivial, nonetheless deserve some attention for peak efficiency for researchers and archivists

alike. The multiple pieces of integrated technology allow for easy viewing of all microfilms,

videos and audio recordings. The desks within the reading room are large enough to

accommodate a typical laptop and many documents; although, again, only one document can be

out at a time. The staff is genuinely interested in researchers and are versed well enough to help

narrow even the broadest levels of curiosity and questioning from visitors. The single most

agitating setback to the archives at the Bush Library would be the request forms, and even this is