By Jeanne Rollberg
Click here to read more, and learn the context of this post, American President and Presidential Libraries: Their Genealogy and Yours! (Part 1)!
In the first part of a series on presidential libraries, we identified some of the reasons that they are fascinating repositories to explore if a family is connected either by blood or by association with a former president. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration oversees the libraries. Information about them and links to them may be found here.
If you are related to a president, you’ll want to explore the genealogical resources (mostly books, documents, and photos) about the president or first lady at a presidential library. Each library has its own set of “finding aids,” many now online, that guide researchers about where to start looking for information. If you find something of interest, you may e-mail, write, or call the library for further guidance. Since most of us are not directly related, we’ll likely be more interested in seeking information about associations – personal, military, business, or governmental – with a president’s family. In the previous article, we explored items that may be found at the libraries of Presidents Eisenhower and Truman. Let’s look at more examples for other presidents and also explore on-site research at the libraries.
At the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, textual reference specialist Dana Bronson says there is lots to see about ordinary Americans who connected with the president here: “We have the White House Central Name File (the mail is arranged by the last name of the author), the White House Central Subject File (the mail is arranged topically) and we have the Public Opinion Mail (this collection contains mail from the public on topics that generated a lot of interest) .” The president’s office files have been digitized here: President’s Office Files. There are many worthy genealogical photos of President Kennedy’s historic political family at the library.
“Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, Kennedy Family Collection
Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library
In Jacqueline Kennedy’s Personal Papers, there are multiple folders with information about Christmas cards and Christmas planning more generally, Bronson indicates. The
White House Social File is good to explore if you believe an ancestor corresponded with Mrs. Kennedy, who was a key promoter of the arts and culture, and a fashion icon.
At the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, Archivist Brian C. McNerney says family research, especially about the Johnson family, is easy to do. The papers of the president’s mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson, regarding her work, A Family Album (regarding both Johnson and Baines family history) are there. Sam Johnson, LBJ’s brother, has a small personal papers collection there, too.
How about items that might connect to our ancestors? “We have letters from inquiring members of the public, especially regarding possible family connections,” McNerney says. “We have extensive holiday card correspondence, from relatives but also from the general public, reflecting his time as early as his House and Senate period and extending nearly to the present.”
Lady Bird (Claudia Taylor) Johnson, the president’s wife, was a strong advocate for civil rights, women seeking higher education, and beautification projects. Was your ancestor involved in any of these activities with her? McNerney says, “Lady Bird conducted a large number of oral histories, approximately two dozen, to reveal a broad spectrum of insight into the family’s role and activities.” You might investigate some of these to determine if an ancestor was potentially connected.
Gerald R. Ford Library
At the Gerald R. Ford Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, you may learn about the president’s genealogy here.
Archives Technician John O’Connell describes the kinds of queries he sometimes gets. “A high school student asked if I could digitize and send 2 get-well cards from Betty Ford’s breast cancer surgery in 1974.” One of the more famous letters to Betty Ford found in the library is from Mrs. Maria Von Trapp, whose life was depicted in “The Sound of Music.” She objected to remarks that Mrs. Ford made about social mores and sexuality in a “60 Minutes” interview.
Click image to enlarge Maria Von Trapp Letter
“Courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Library”
O’Connell provides tips for those seeking information about ancestor connections to the Fords: “For information relating to a grandparent attending High School or growing up in Grand Rapids with Gerald and Betty Ford, I consult
- The Composite Grand Rapids Accessions
- Grand Rapids Oral History Collection
- Grand Rapids South High School Publications
William J. Clinton Library
The William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, is connected to a museum that features genealogical pictures, elementary, high school and college information, and other memorabilia about both former President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Supervisory archivist Dana Simmons says, “We do have correspondence from ‘ordinary people.’ We find them all over the Staff and Office files. In addition, the White House Office of Records Management (WHORM) contains a variety of series created to organize and track documents and correspondence. The WHORM Subject file was compiled by the White House Office of Records Management and is a series of categories designated by a letter/number combination.”
For presidential libraries of two-term and more recent presidents, the processing of voluminous information so the public can use it is an intense, lengthy process. “Unfortunately, we don’t have large collections of correspondence processed unless it was processed as part of a FOIA [open records] request or is contained in a Staff Member’s office files that have been systematically processed,” Simmons says.
The George (Herbert Walker) Bush library on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas and the George W. Bush Library (at Southern Methodist University) in Dallas have similar WHORM files regarding the public’s connections to the president. According to Bush Library archivist Doug Campbell, “We do have correspondence from ordinary people found all over the collection to include the White House staff and office files, the WHORM subject files and the WHORM Alph files.” If your family has connections to the Bush families or interest in other associations with them, please see these files at the Bush libraries.
Visiting a Presidential Library
If you visit a library to find items in person about your family that are not accessible online, you must follow specified research guidelines and be issued a researcher identification card. Your research will be carefully supervised for security reasons. Notice ahead of time to archivists about specific items of interest enables researchers to prepare for your visit, thus making time at such a library researching ancestors more efficient, effective, and enjoyable. For sample research room planning guidelines, consult pages like this one on the George W. Bush Library sites.