Sunday, October 11, 2009

Capital Area Archivists FDR Library-CIA Library visit

On Friday, about twenty members of the Capital Area Archivists of New York (CAA) toured two repositories in Hyde Park, New York: the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum and the Hilton Library at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

We began our tour at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. President Roosevelt was the first president to establish a library, and the manner in which he created it -- privately raising funds for construction of the facility and then donating the building and grounds to the federal government so that the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration could operate it -- established the model (now being re-examined) for the creation and maintenance of presidential libraries.

FDR himself designed the building, which is modeled upon the fieldstone houses that Dutch colonists and their descendants built in the mid- and lower Hudson Valley during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The FDR Library opened in 1941, and to date it is the only presidential library in which a sitting president has worked. President Roosevelt's study is now part of the museum that occupies most of the first floor of the building. The desk in the far corner of the room is an approximate replica (one of FDR's sons took possession of the original desk in 1945), but the rest of the furniture -- including the wheelchair fitted with an amber glass ashtray -- belonged to FDR.

Supervisory Archivist Bob Clark gave us a tour of the library's stacks. Although it's kind of hard to tell from the image above, the design of the stacks reflects one of FDR's abiding passions: the U.S. Navy. The "mid-deck" floor on which many of the archival records are stored was designed to look like the interior of a ship: most of the surfaces are painted battleship gray, the metal support beams running along the ceiling resemble those found on ships, and narrow metal staircases connect the mid-deck and other floors.

The design of the stacks also reflects a more practical concern: FDR made sure that the aisles were wide enough to accommodate his wheelchair. The aisles are now narrower than they were in FDR's day -- the records were rehoused in modern archival boxes a few decades ago, and the new boxes are larger than the old ones -- but the fact remains that the FDR Library is likely the first federal building to be designed with accessibility in mind.

Clark allowed us to take a look at a few of the repository's treasures, including the draft of President Roosevelt's 8 December 1941 address to Congress requesting a declaration of war against Japan. The manuscript edits are in FDR's own hand. If you look at the top right of the image above, you'll see he changed " a date which will live in world history" to "a date which will live in infamy."

The FDR Library is still the most heavily used of the presidential libraries, and just about everyone who studies the history of America during the 1930s and 1940s conducts research at the facility. We got a chance to see the research room, but left after a few minutes because a couple of researchers were getting ready to start working, and we didn't want to disturb them.

As you might guess, the research room is located on the uppermost floor of the library. Although it's hard to tell from the photograph above, there several dormer windows within the room, which means that some natural light spills in. It's a pleasant space, and, as Clark pointed out, its proximity to the stack areas means that staff can retrieve records immediately after a researcher requests them.

After we left the library, we walked to Springwood, the home in which FDR and in which he and his family lived while they were staying in the Hudson Valley. It's part of the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, which is administered by the National Park Service.

Photography is not allowed inside Springwood, so you'll need to visit it yourself if you want to see what the interior looks like. If you go, you'll see all kinds of interesting things: FDR's methodically assembled boyhood collection of stuffed birds, his collection of anti-British political cartoons (which stayed up when King George VI visited the house), paintings reflecting his interest in sailing and the U.S. Navy, and the manually operated luggage lift that he used to pull himself up to the second floor of the house -- no mean feat. Springwood is filled with odd corners and little sets of stairs that must have made life extremely difficult for a man who made heavy use of a wheelchair.

After we left Springwood, many of us paid a quick visit to the rose garden, which contains the graves of President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Fala, the president's beloved Scottish Terrier. As you can see, the rose garden is very close to the library.

After we left the FDR library and historic site, we made the quick drive to the CIA. Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer, who was initially hired as the institution's archivist and is also its reference librarian, met us in the lobby of the Conrad N. Hilton Library and answered many of our questions about the school, which occupies a former Jesuit novitiate and is the oldest culinary school in the United States.

She then took us on a tour of the school's archival and rare book collections, which are small but extremely interesting: the Hilton Library holds a substantial number of rare books concerning food and cookery and holds a large number of restaurant, train, and ship menus dating back to 1823. Some of the older menus have been digitized and are available online via the library's Web site or online catalog (do a keyword search for "digitized menus").

Before heading back to Albany, we stopped by the Apple Pie Bakery Café, the most casual of the student-run restaurants on the CIA campus, for a delicious light dinner. Everyone had a wonderful time, and I'm deeply thankful that we got the chance to see these repositories.

1 comment:

Amy R said...

Excellent summary of a great trip!