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Library of Congress Completes Digitization of 23 Early Presidential Collections

This is awesome! The Library of Congress has just finished a 20 year(!) project to digitize the papers of the Presidents from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. I hope GPO is going to catalog these collections so that the records get into library catalogs!

The Library of Congress has completed a more than two decade-long initiative to digitize the papers of nearly two dozen early presidents. The Library holds the papers of 23 presidents from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge, all of which have been digitized and are now available online.

The Library plans to highlight each presidential collection on social media in the weeks leading up to the next presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021.

Full Set of Presidential Collections

Public “papers” of the President?


Now that Congress has officially changed GPO’s name from Government Printing Office to Government Publishing Office, (GPO Observes 154th Birthday With New Name, New Logo), perhaps it is time to rethink not just the name, but the function of the Public papers of the Presidents of the United States and the related publications, the Daily and Weekly Compilation of Presidential documents.

Why? Because, although digital words and words on paper will continue to have both functional and historical importance, the official historical record should also include the audio and video recordings of the President.


Case in point: last week President Obama interviewed David Simon, the creator of HBO’s The Wire. Aside from the fact that this was an interesting cultural moment, the President also discussed drug policy issues in a clear and revealing way. This is the way most people experience this kind of Presidential “document.” The experience of watching the video is different from the experience of reading the transcript. The video is on YouTube (and, apparently, not on any public government web pages. Yes, you can watch the video on a White House web page, but that page only embeds the video that actually resides on YouTube, and is subject, of course, to Google’s “privacy” policy.) As of today (March 29, 2015), the transcript of the interview is already available on the White House’s Medium site (but, again, not on a publicly accessible government web server). Presumably, the official transcript will show up soon as part of the Compilation of Presidential documents. But we should be asking, who will preserve the video? How will it be preserved for long-term, free public access? Who will protect the privacy of viewers of the video? Who will preserve digital-video format in a manner that ensures it can be watched in 5, 10, or 100 years?

But there is more. This is not just a trivial issue of the name of a publication. Rather, it is an issue of how future researchers will discover and identify the complete and official record of presidents. It is not clear that the government is actually compiling a complete record of the President, much less preserving it or ensuring that people will be able to find, identify, and use all the relevant public “documents” of the presidents. Increasingly, the official record of presidents should include an A/V record. Assuming that the bits and pieces may be preserved somewhere (by Google? by NARA in a preservation silo? in a Presidential Library someday? in an end-of-term crawl?) is not enough. We should be asking: How will the video be organized, indexed, and presented to ensure that it is easily discoverable and identifiable as part of the official record of the President?

P.S., GPO might want to fix its PURLs to the daily and weekly Compilations. It appears that the Weekly PURL (purl.access.gpo.gov/GPO/LPS1769) correctly points to http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/browse/collection.action?collectionCode=CPD, but the Daily PURL (purl.access.gpo.gov/GPO/LPS107897) unnecessarily points to 2010.