Don’t let the word “library” misguide you. While there are thousands of papers and personal records of the presidents to read, and spaces for scholarly research, there are just as many opportunities to explore, touch, see, listen, and learn about American history at the 13 presidential libraries located throughout the country operated under the National Archives and Records Administration. There are also several other presidential libraries, including one in Chicago honoring President Obama that are not under the umbrella of the NARA.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to establish a presidential library, followed by each succeeding president, as well as predecessor Herbert Hoover. The National Archives and Records Administration oversee the 13 presidential libraries. I first wrote about presidential libraries for Kidventurous in 2014, but have since visited more libraries and museums and learned lots of new things! At your first stop, be sure to pick up the passport for all 13 libraries so you can collect the stamps.
I Spy: At each library, have your children be on the lookout for:
1. Introductory videos: Most libraries begin (the often self guided) tour with a brief (10-20 minute) video of the president’s life before, during, and after his presidency.
2. Oval Office replicas: See the setup of the entire office, including desks and personal mementos.
3. Childhood mementos: including report cards, toys, clothing, and of each president.
4. Personal artifacts: from love letters Ronald Reagan wrote to Nancy Reagan, to pictures Caroline Kennedy made for her father, these displays provide an intimate insight to the president’s “off duty” life.
5. Campaign memorabilia: each library museum has a comprehensive collection of marketing and advertising tools used in the elections.
6. Auto clips, news broadcasts, and televised interviews with the presidents: Hear parts of the famous Frost and Nixon interview.
7. Gifts from other countries given to the presidents and first ladies: the vast collections range from china and jewelry to sculptures and paintings.
8. First lady exhibitions: which celebrate the important role first ladies had in the presidency. There are displays of their personal effects (clothing and jewelry), but also important information about programs they spearheaded. Learn about Lady Bird Johnson’s mission to beautify highways and neighborhoods and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.
9. The beginnings of major philanthropic organizations: Franklin D. Roosevelt created the March of Dimes, and John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps. Learn about the progress these groups have made over time.
10. Gardens: For the garden lover, many libraries have expansive gardens and offer docent led tours for visitors.
Most libraries are located near or in major cities. After your visit, check out these nearby attractions:
Herbert Hoover in West Branch, IA: About 20 minutes away from the museum is the Devonian Fossil Gorge, where you can explore sea life fossils that are over 350 million years old. Kids will love following the map and finding the 20 different spots where they can climb, touch, and explore the fossils. A visitor center will set you up with the map, guidelines, and advice.
Franklin Roosevelt in Hyde Park, NY: The Culinary Institute of America is just two miles from the library where you can take tours of the college. Make sure to leave time to eat in one of the four restaurants- I suggest making reservations ahead of time! I’d also recommend Post Road Brew House of American Bounty Restaurant if you’re bringing the kids.
Harry Truman Library in Independence, MO: If you want to learn ever more about our 33rd president, take a one mile walk to the Harry Truman National Historic Site to take a tour of the personal home of President and Mrs. Truman. Kids will enjoy the many outdoor adventures offered at Fleming Park, a twenty minute drive from the library. There are areas for picnicking, boating, fishing, and hiking.
Dwight Eisenhower Library in Abilene, KS: Chocolate and candy lovers (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?!) will want to leave time to stop at the Russell Stover Candy Factory and Outlet, a ten minute drive from the library. You can watch the factory workers prepare the chocolates and candies and can purchase their entire collection of sweets. They also sell Blue Bell ice cream.
John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, MA: Located on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and super close to several Boston attractions. Castle Island is about a mile from the JFK Library and isn’t technically an island. It it home to Fort Independence, which you can explore. There is plenty of space for kids to around, a playground, and Sullivan’s, the perfect seafood shack to stop for a picnic meal.
Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, TX: Located next to the University of Texas at Austin. Younger children will enjoy exploring The Thinkery, a children’s museum focused on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) initiatives through a variety of hands on exhibits, shows, and programs. It’s a 10 minute drive from the LBJ Library.
Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA: You’re less than a thirty minute drive to Anaheim, home to the Angels baseball team, as well as DisneyLand.
Gerald Ford Library in Ann Harbor, MI: Sports enthusiasts will want to stop for a tour, or least a photo opt, outside The Big House at the University of Michigan, the largest stadium in the country (it’s got almost 110,000 seats!). Children will be better entertained at the Ann Harbor Hands-On Museum, ten minutes from the presidential library.
Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta, GA: The Martin Luther King Historic Site complex, which includes his boyhood home, the church where he preaches, the local firehouse, a rose garden, and a museum focused on MLK’s life and the Civil Rights Movement, is two miles from the Carter Library. Check back soon for a post about the complex, but plan on spending at least half a day learning about the Civil Rights leader. There is plenty of things to do in downtown Atlanta- look out for upcoming posts on Atlana, too.
Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA: They say there’s a hall of fame for just about everything; here’s one that guaranteed to impress teenagers (and everyone will be mesmerized by the collection of boards on display!): The Skateboarding Hall of Fame, about 20 minutes away from the library. It’s free to visit.
George Bush Library in College Station, TX: Located on the campus of Texas A&M University, which would be a great campus to explore. Younger children will have fun at the Children’s Museum of Brazos Valley, where they can explore almost a dozen exhibits and an indoor rocket ship themed playground.
William J. Clinton Library in Little Rock, AR: Within walking distance of the library is the Museum of Discovery, which is ranked by MESA as one of the best science museums in the country. There’s plenty of hands on activities to engage children.
George W. Bush Library in Dallas, TX: Right next to the campus of Southern Methodist University. Take a fifteen minute drive to the Dallas Zoo and check out over 400 species of animals.