Meditations on FOIA and Presidential Libraries

By alanamhmd

After relinquishing his family’s iron grip on the White House, former president George W. Bush has sought to reinvent himself as a Renaissance Man of sorts. He wrote a book about his father, he took up painting, and last April, he unveiled the George W. Bush Library and Museum Center. He “views this as a way for the public to get all the facts so that they can make an educated decision about how they regard him and what he did in office” according to Mark Langdale, who was head of Bush’s private foundation and oversaw construction of the library. He also mentions that Bush himself took on curatorial responsibilities: “He literally looked at every exhibit and said, ‘I want this, I want that.’” 1


It seems Bush hopes this library will improve his standing in the public eye, possibly to help his brother’s chances of running for president in 2016. He believes that the library will better contextualize his decision-making by providing the public with important official information. However, during his presidency, Bush’s policies seemed to encourage the opposite, aiming to keep his public in the dark.


This is hardly topical in either the Library Science field or in American politics, but McChesney’s Digital Disconnect and Lessig’s Free Culture reminded me of the heavy ironies that burden the American government’s attitudes towards freedom of information.  McChesney dismisses the idea that the web has brought us closer to the democratizing of information since large companies control what we see and how we can use the internet while it becomes a gateway for the government and advertisers to monitor our activity.  In particular, he identifies copyright as a significant factor in digital giants “establishing proprietary systems for which they control access and the terms of the relationship” instead of protecting the idea of the internet as an open source of information. 2  Lawrence Lessig argues at the beginning of Free Culture that our free culture has been “queered by extremism in the property rights that define it.” 3   The internet has long contested ideas of who owns information and who gets to access said information.  However, these inquires seem to stop at the federal level.  With new bills being pushed to simplify online access to records provided by the Freedom of Information Act, it seems appropriate to examine how official records have been shared in the past.


Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, presidents and vice-presidents must release their records to the US Government no later than (a very long) twelve years after leaving office. The records are held by the National Archives and available to the public, except under certain exemptions defined by the Freedom of Information Act.   Bush twice blocked the scheduled release of 68,000 pages of Reagan documents so that his legal team could review them and judge whether they were fit for public viewing. This resulted in his issuing of Executive Order 13,233, which gave former Presidents, their heirs, and former vice presidents the ability to block their records from going public for an indefinite amount of time. 4  This seemingly unconstitutional move was not rare.  McChesney notes, “In 1995 the government classified 5.6 million documents; in 2011 it cassified 92 million documents…The US Government spends, by conservative estimate, $13 billion annually to make and keep secret government information.” 5  Though the Freedom of Information Act exists to keep a well-informed public, the government often exploits its nine exemptions to withhold information.   The National Security Archives had to file an action to get the order partially dismissed. The judge ruled that Presidents could not keep information from the public, but did not rule on the role of heirs and vice-presidents. It was only when President Obama took office that the order was fully dismissed. 6


Coincidentally, the Bush library was opened to Freedom of Information Act requests starting this past January. Theoretically, this is the heart of the library: open information, free to the public. But, the National Archives FAQ page demonstrates how flimsy this supposed open access is. Documents are considered closed until a requester files a FOIA request for a particular folder and must be reviewed before they can be released. If there is any classified material in the document, it is immediately labeled classified and the request is denied. Declassification reviews can be ordered by the requester, but those can be passed around to as many as 14 government agencies before probably being denied. 7


On top of that, there is the bureaucracy that is so fundamental to our federal body. Requests for documents cannot be requested until five years after the president has left office. A president is allowed to restrict public access on specific documents for another twelve years. And even after that, the normal exemptions of the FOIA still apply and requesting information.  FOIA requests vary by department and requesters can often get shuttled around from one to another in their search for these supposed public records. Recently there’s been a bipartisan bill the House has been trying to push through to improve FOIA which would include the creation of a single FOIA website that streamlines the request process. It focuses on clarifying FOIA’s fifth exemption, which deals with the withholding of “intra-agency” documents, but is often called the “withhold it because you want to” exemption due to its large scope and vague wording.  While documents are considered closed until requested, the FOIA Improvement Act would encourage a “presumption of openness” regarding documents. However, similar bills have been rejected three times already. And even so, many documents would remain out of reach from the public as documents from the Eisenhower Library and before would still be considered classified. And, as Bush’s legal team has already demonstrated, presidents can often find loopholes for holding information and negotiating with judge rulings. 8


It seems strange that the man who was so miserly with former presidential documents would want to share his own. But of course it’s not. The old adage that knowledge is power is so much more true when you have state-sanctioned Presidential Library Acts and wealthy donors behind you. Presidential libraries have strayed from attempts to improve transparency between presidencies and citizens. Instead, they have become sites for creating fables. Bush is able to construct his own presidency by building this library and museum. Some even act as shrines to past presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and others have been buried at their libraries. 9


This all seems deliberately removed from the original purpose of libraries, especially when we consider who controls presidential libraries. While the National Archive owns papers and maintains these centers, private money dictates how elaborate these museums can be and what can be featured. 10 For example, the Reagan museum features an exhibit called “Amazing Automobiles: The Ultimate Car Exhibit” and is on view until May 2015.  Essentially, the National Archives pays to maintain giant, irreverent billboards for our past presidents, funneling money into upkeep where they should be concerned with the preservation of our presidents’ important historical documents.

  1. Bailey, Holly. “As a new library opens, Bush hopes for a reassessment of his legacy.” Yahoo News, April 25, 2013. Web.
  2. McChesney, Robert. Digital Disconnect. New York: The New Press, 2013.  EBook.
  3. Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.
  4. “Archive, Historians Ask Judge to Rethink Dismissal…” The National Security Archive, April 30, 2004. Web.
  5. McChesney
  6. Fuchs, Meredith. “Court Rules Delay in Release of Presidential Papers is Illegal.” The National Security Archive, October 1, 2007. Web.
  7. Adair, Kristin and Nielsen Catherine. Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone. DC: The National Security Archive, Jan 2009. Web.
  8. Adair and Nielsen
  9. “Frequently Asked Questions about Presidential Libraries and Museums.” National Archives. Web.
  10. National Archives.

World Building and the Collections in the Art Museum-Library

By alanamhmd

Ada Kolganova and Anastasia Guy note in their paper “Heritage received and multiplied: Russian art libraries as collectors and translators” that museum libraries inhabit an interesting space in librarianship. 1 They function as a kind of secondary research department in tandem with their larger museum. They are often part archive, part library, part museum, part classroom.

I did observation at the MoMA and Poets House libraries, both of which I consider to be art museum libraries. I am considering the Poets House library a museum library in the most general way: it functions as archive (storing important founders documents, including personal libraries, and personal correspondences), library (hosting the largest collection of poetry books, chapbooks, collections, and art books on the east coast), museum (by holding exhibitions from artists such as George Schneeman and acting as a performance space for poets), and research center (by providing resources for art and art criticism.). At the very least, the Poets House library is a specialized library dedicated to putting forth a specific view about poetry and its place in the art world.

It’s important to note that museum libraries are not their own entities, but rather appendages of larger institutions interested in carving out their own niche in the art world. These agendas are similar to the ways Derrida talks about the dualities of archive fever. He says:

…Right on what permits and conditions archivization, we will never find anything other than what exposes to destruction, in truth what menaces with destruction introducing, a priori, forgetfulness and the archiviolithic into the heart of the monument…The archive always works, and a priori, against itself (14). 2

As much as the archive remembers, it also forgets, destroys, and thus, creates new memories and truths. Derrida says this is the character of the archive. Museum libraries function in a similar manner. Their curated collections construct the art world as they wish to define it. These mythologies are something I think Walter Benjamin would understand as political.

What interests me about these two examples is the way they curate their libraries. MoMA and Poets House are both respected institutions in the art world, though I will readily admit that MoMA is probably better known and better funded. That seems to be the case anyway, given how frankly my Poets House guide (and Pratt alum!) Gina Scalise spoke about soliciting donations and new work. Their focus is on amassing a large collection from a number of sources. “The other week I had to catalog a ziplock bag with a cut out slice of pizza and a seed in it,” she told me. 3 I asked to see the conceptual piece, but she said they were still debating where to store it. Scalise says they often receive conceptual material that’s up for debate and they’ve even made a small space for “more fiction-leaning material” in their collection. Poets House gathers its material from prominent presses like Ugly Duckling Presse to smaller one-person operations. Because they accept a large range of material, their organizing system is constantly in flux and, perhaps, not as intuitive as it ought to be. But Poets House aim, at the end of the day, is to amass as much poetry as possible.

MoMA’s library has a more standard fair than Poets House and is split between its Manhattan location and its Queens PS1 location. It includes art history and criticism books, but the Manhattan location also housed books published after the 1940s, catalogs (which it shares with the MoMA Archive) and MoMA publications and special collections. The emphasis of my time at MoMA seemed to be the MoMA publications: art books collaborations between the museum and an artist of the museum’s choice. Several examples were laid out for us upon arrival. Especially impressive was the ten-something foot-long scroll from Yun-Fei Ji, which depicts the chaos instigated by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China. Librarian David Senior said they had to search for a particular printing house in China to realize Ji’s. 4 Their most recent project, soon to be released, is an artist’s book called Tom Tit Tot, which will feature poetry from Susan Howe and artwork from her daughter, R. H. Quaytman.

Along with Senior, several other librarians expressed excitement about MoMA’s publications. The museum was able to fund artist’s works while the library could serve as a place to democratize the sharing of these works. Each work is printed in a limited edition and while the library has a copy or two, most are meant for distribution, with part of the sale funding MoMA’s library and archives. The library and archive are considered separate entities from the museum and thus work within their budget. The artist books produced come in part from donations by The Library Council. The Council is a group of a hundred donors who pay an annual fee of $2,500 dollars and in return receive a copy of the artist book upon completion. “It’s a great way to inspire community and it’s a win-win for everyone,” Senior enthused. 5

I’m interested in the way Poets House and MoMA cultivate ideas of what the art world is. I thought the comparison between Poets House and MoMA was especially salient given that they both primarily deal with artist books, or genre-bending books having to do with art and art expression. I found that Poets House seemed less formal and more community-based than MoMA’s libary. Or rather, Poets House seeks a wider community base than MoMA. Patrons are encouraged to “let it hang out” as Scalise would say, with assorted couches, desks, and several reading rooms to choose from. Some patrons chose to read on a spiral staircase without interruption. In the summer, the space opens up into a garden, where patrons are encouraged to take their reading material. Poets House seems to build more of a user-based world, designed with a purposeful chaos to allow for exploration.

MoMA seemed more exclusive in many senses. For one, everything was very sanitary. There was one reading room with rows of desks and chairs lined one after the other, so that librarians could keep an eye on patrons. I was not allowed to take photos unless I signed several forms. Material is highly regulated because the material is often rare, though reproducible.

And of course, there is the difference in collections. Poets House depends on the populous but small, independent presses, while MoMA’s collection usually utilizes one or two specialized printers for their commissioned books. There is an insulation to MoMA’s curatorial process not present at Poets House. MoMA’s collection curates an art world that is exclusive, sophisticated, and highly regulated. Poets House curates one that is inclusive, candid, engaging, and less regulated.

The importance of an institution’s attempts to define the art world can better be understood in terms of Benjamin’s insistence that art be political in one way or another. MoMA’s focus on the exclusive with its Library Council can be seen as a reproduction of the cult value of art where, “what mattered was their existence, not their being on view.”6 The entire idea of the limited edition underscores the primacy of authenticity and exclusivity; the elitism of bourgeois evaluation of art.

This is not an issue Poets House deals with due to the breadth of its collection. The very nature of their art books is that they are widely available and reproducible. The small publishers they use circulate their books at multiple locations. I would argue that, while MoMA has the ability to reproduce these books, because they tend to circulate material among a select few, they keep artists from engaging a wide audience in the progressive politics of their art. On the other hand, Poets House does not have the means to reproduce its material, but allows the patron more access to the material. Perhaps the ability to take photos of books without the need of forms is a way of returning the power to reproduce back to the patron. This freedom seems to be more in-line with Benjamin’s optimism about the impact of technology on politicizing of art. He says:

One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. 7

Here Benjamin is talking about the way reproduction has the power to be political and to make art political by engaging the masses. Even though we’ve already established that the books at Poets House are easily reproduced by their publishers, I think allowing for patron photography is yet another way to harness the power of reproduction Benjamin talks about. It reinforces the idea of a more community-based, inclusive art world, something that seems more progressive in light of Benjamin’s analysis of art reproduction.

At the MoMA library, Senior seemed proud of the Dadaist-influenced, politically-minded art they have been able to fund. He pointed to Yung-Fei Ji’s piece as a radically subversive work criticizing imperialism and the Chinese government, made even more impressive by the use of a traditional Chinese printing house that had been acquired by the government. But if that message is only circulated amongst a few, how can we call the act of possession radical? Ji’s work seems easily tokenized in this manner, its use a strange echo of the Futurists’ aestheticization of violence Benjamin seems so wary of.



  1. Kolganova, Ada and Guy, Anastasia. “Heritage received and multiplied: Russian art libraries as collectors and translators.” IFLA General Conference and Assembly in Milan, Italy 2009. 23-27 August 2009, Milan. Accessed from:
  2. Derrida, Jacques. “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.” Diacritics 25.2 (1995):9-63. Web.
  3. Scalise, Gina. Personal interview. 23 October 2014.
  4. Senior, David. Personal interview. 14 October 2014.
  5. Senior, David
  6. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Schocken/Random House, 1936. Web.
  7. Benjamin, Walter

Pop-Up Libraries and Community Engagement

By alanamhmd

When the city halted construction on a Hunters Point library this past spring, pop-up and mobile libraries provided alternative services. 1  Queens Library CEO Thomas Galante, who is currently on paid leave due to an investigation into his salary and spending, had said plans were halted because of budget discrepancies concerning the complexity of the building’s designs. 2  Hunters Point residents petitioned for access to a public library, leading Queens Library to open a mobile library at the would-be site of construction. In addition, a group called Friends of Hunters Point Library has kicked off their own pop-up library, which uses the “take-a-book-leave-a-book” model and offers free WiFi and downloads to the public.

These solutions follow the recent trend of “pop-up” libraries that seem to mark a renewed focus on community engagement. Some of these libraries, such as Occupy Wall Street’s The People’s Library, are completely community run and often run on donations. Others, like the Cleveland-based ‘Literary Lots’ work with public institutions to provide access in underserved areas.  These directives interest me because they recall the idea of strengthening community service. In “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries,” Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood state that,

Engaging with the traditional library commodity of information in a ‘non-traditional’ way that responds to local contexts, via the involvement of local people in service design and development, will enable libraries to help bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor (137). 3

The pop-up library’s mobile and ephemeral nature seems to be a direct response to an information age that allows us a constant flow of communication outside of our immediate surroundings, and to a hostile economic climate that has left the poor segregated in underserved and barren areas of the world. These libraries reinforce the necessity of open access to information and its agents, while abandoning its traditional structure and taking on the transient quality of information today.

This new pop-up model seems to be a way to better engage with communities that don’t have access to traditional libraries. However, I wonder if community engagement necessarily equates to community good. Historically, community engagement has not always meant servicing the public in open and honest ways. American libraries have been centers of education meant to proselytize bourgeois ideals to disenfranchised people. In The Alienated Librarian, Maria Nauratil notes

George Ticknor, leader of the Boston Brahmins and a founder of the Boston Public Library, worried that the steadily increasing immigrant population was unfit ‘to understand our free institutions or to be entrusted with the political power given by universal suffrage,’ and he strongly advocated education as a ‘remedy for this influx of ignorance,’ (38). 4

The library’s opening of access to the general public seemed benevolent, but the underlying forces were patronizing in nature. Upper-class philanthropists believed in libraries as ways to assimilate the working class to their ideals and thus qualm social unrest (Nauratil, 39).  Pop-up, community-based libraries could easily act in a similar manner, disguising assimilation tactics as wholesome public service. A more sinister view could propose that these libraries are infiltrating community spaces to disrupt existing and relevant conversations.

However, this idea that the library can act as a vanguard of mainstream ideals can be disturbed upon closer inspection. We must question what these libraries are meant to offer us and how they choose to interact with us. Not every pop up library follows the same model.

For example, last year the PEN World Voices Festival and Architectural League of New York set out to create ten Little Free Libraries, which used small non-invasive spaces such as mailboxes and trellises to provide a limited number of books to the public. The readers are invited to give self-directed tours of the designers’ favorite reading spots. The books provided are from popular publishers and include titles such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Game series. 5

This year, the Floating Library emerged on the Hudson: a pop-up library aboard the Lilac Museum Steamship organized by artist Beatrice Glow. The space is open to the public. The ship will offer, “a range of reading materials from underrepresented authors, artist books, poetry, manifestoes, as well as book collections, that, at the end of the lifecycle of the project will be donated to local high school students with demonstrated need.” The ship also offers art installations, performances, and workshops dedicated to DIY politics with an emphasis on leftist politics and environmental concerns.

Both pop-ups are at least part artistic experiment, but I wonder which library services the community better. Both have an agenda: the Little Free Libraries aim to be accessible to what the public, while The Floating Library aims to expose the public to new ideas, authors, and culture. What is of more value to the public: accessibility or exposure? The Little Free Libraries were set up in deliberately public places, while the Floating Library exists in a contained and maybe exclusionary place. Surely it’s easier to grab a book from your bench-turned-book-shelf than to trek to Pier 25 on the Hudson River. But then again, we must wonder who has the best access to these Little Free Libraries, all located on the Lower East Side? I would also seek to question: where are the librarians, curators, and information specialists? While I am not about to assert that the Little Free Libraries actively aims to uphold bourgeouis ideals and brainwash the working class, the project isn’t interested in engaging the public in conversation surrounding its material.

The Little Free Libraries project seems to focus more on the book than on the flow of information between people. In some ways, this echoes the idea of the enchained book in university libraries. Andre Cossette touches on this in Humanism and Libraries, noting, “The tidy arrangement sufficiently shows the importance that [universities] accorded to the preservation of books as opposed to their diffusion and sharing” (41). 6  Leaving books in odd corners of New York City for casual perusal could hardly be called a focus on preservation. However, both models of libraries seem to value the book over its information. That seems to be the case for the director of the PEN World Voices Festival, Jakab Orsos, who told the Times, “It really restores my faith, this connectedness — how people are actually harboring the beauty of reading and the book and the importance of the book.” 7 Part of the appeal of the Little Free Libraries project is the novelty of seeing a book in a bird-feeder instead of on a shelf. Glow’s “Floating Library” seems more focused on conversation surrounding content, than the book itself. To me, this seems to be the more meaningful way to engage communities. Whether it’s the most appealing way is another question.

On a symbolic level, I wonder about the uprooting of the traditional, physical library. Removing reading, learning, and conversation from the confines of traditional educational structures in favor of the open spaces we tend to have more organic connections with is appealing to me. These pop-up libraries illustrate the ways that information is no longer confined to institutions. When they include underserved communities in relevant conversations, these libraries begin to, as Durrani and Smallwood say, “help bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor.”

  1. Evelly, Jeanmarie. (May 23, 2014). “Pop-Up and Mobile Libraries to Bring Books to Hunters Point This Summer.” Retrieved from
  2. Evelly Jeanmarie. (Feb 27, 2014). “Plans Tweaked for Hunters Point Library After Bids Run Millions Over Budget.” Retrieved from
  3. Durrani, Shiraz and Smallwood, Elizabeth. “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essasys from Progressive Librarian. Ed. Alison Lewis. Duluth: Library Juice Press, 2008. 119-140.
  4. Nauratil, Maria. The Alienated Librarian. Westport: Greenwoord Press. 1989.
  5. Yee, Vivian. (May 3, 2013.) “With Tiny Libraries, Bringing Free Literature to the Streets.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:
  6. Cossette, Andre. Humanism and Libraries. Library Juice Press. 2009.
  7. Yee, Vivian
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