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Presidential libraries compete for visitors in a theme-park world

Clinton's library joins a crowded field of underutilized, lightly touristed Presidential libraries.
Image: Nixon library
The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif.Nick Ut / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mary McKnight calls herself Ronald Reagan's No. 1 fan. Gazing somberly at the 40th president's stone tomb, the retired nurse from Kansas murmured, “It's humbling to be here.” Nearby, a boy in a Yankees jersey seemed less impressed by Reagan's library and museum, muttering something about wanting to go to Disneyland.

The contrast illustrates the challenge facing the nation's 11 presidential libraries—soon to be 12 with the opening of Bill Clinton's on Thursday—as they compete for visitors in a world of theme parks and other attractions.

Attendance at the libraries during the last five years has dropped from about 1.5 million to about 1.3 million visitors, a decline of about 13 percent. To become more competitive, some libraries are adding attractions and turning to more aggressive marketing tactics.

“For all the libraries, tourism depends on how the institutions are promoted,” said Jay Hakes, director of the Carter library. “Sometimes it's better to be a big fish in a small pond; sometimes it's better to be a smaller fish in a large pond. But across the board, we need to be more aggressive, and I think we're seeing some of that now.”

The Reagan library had seen a 31 percent decrease in visitation until the former president's death this year. Since the facility reopened on June 14 after a weeklong memorial, more than 110,000 visitors have poured into the mission-style complex northwest of Los Angeles.

Image: Reagan library
Members of the public pause to look at the burial site of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, at his presidential library in Simi Valley, CaliforniaFred Prouser / X00224

That's more than half the attendance the most popular library—Lyndon Johnson's in Austin, Texas—sees in an entire year.

“If you'd told me on June 6 that we'd have such a spike and see it continue at these high levels, I never would have believed it,” said John Langellier, assistant director of the sprawling complex.

Since 1999, the Reagan facility has ranked third in attendance among U.S. presidential libraries, drawing 191,213 visitors each year.

The most popular presidential library during that time was Johnson's, where admission is free, with an average annual visitation of 200,898 tourists. The John F. Kennedy library in Boston was next, averaging 192,213 visitors per year.

Yet with the jump in attendance seen at the Reagan library since the two-term president's death, Langellier said the complex could log an unprecedented 400,000 visitors by the end of the year. This includes the 106,000 mourners who filed by the president's flag-draped coffin during the 48 hours he was in repose.

Keeping the crowds entertained

The challenge is to keep the crowds coming in future years.

Langellier predicts that won't be a problem at the Reagan library, especially with the upcoming display of the Boeing 707 that served as Air Force One while Reagan was in office. The $25 million permanent exhibit is expected to open next summer.

“We'll be one of the largest historical centers in the nation, if not the world,” Langellier said.

Not all the presidential libraries can boast the same.

On the other end of the attendance scale, the Jimmy Carter library in Atlanta has drawn an average of 72,295 visitors since 1999. The Herbert Hoover library in West Branch, Iowa, attracted the fewest visitors, 66,209, each year.

“Hoover wasn't a popular president,” said Timothy Walch, director of the Hoover library. “Most people relate him to the Depression, which doesn't inspire nostalgia. Being in West Branch doesn't help, either.”

Regardless of size, the goal of all the libraries is the same—to keep the past fresh.

“It's a challenge for all libraries and museums, not just presidential ones, to draw young visitors when competing with the Disneylands and other amusements,” said Sharon Fawcett, deputy assistant archivist for the National Archives and Records Administration.

“But there is an interest in history,” Fawcett said. “People want to know about their presidents, and these libraries offer that opportunity.”

Some of the strategies for drawing visitors include rotating exhibits regularly, hosting speakers and educational series, offering school tours and adding attractions that appeal to all generations.

Across the country, presidential libraries are looking for ways to raise their profiles.

Reagan library assistant director Langellier said he envisions tour packages in which tourists to Southern California visit cultural and commercial venues—Disneyland and Sea World coupled with the Reagan and Nixon libraries, for instance.

In Atlanta, the Carter library touts the potential for tourists to see two Nobel Peace prizes within a short distance—Jimmy Carter's 2002 prize and Martin Luther King Jr.'s from 1964.

And in Texas, the Johnson and George Bush libraries are buzzing in anticipation of a potential presidential triumvirate should a George W. Bush library be added to the state in coming years.

The presidential library tradition began in 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt raised private money to build his facility. He then turned it over to the U.S. government for operation through the national archives. In 1955, this process became law when Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act.

The federal government now runs all the country's major presidential libraries with one exception. The Richard Nixon complex in Yorba Linda is privately funded and operated.

Bill Clinton puts his stamp on the tradition

The newest addition to the roster of presidential archives, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park in Little Rock, Ark., is well aware of attendance challenges and has placed a strong emphasis on tourism.

Even its name signals an edgier venue. Beyond marketing itself as a library and museum, the center touts its location in a 30-acre city park with a pedestrian bridge spanning the Arkansas river. The complex also will feature a school that will offer master's degrees in public service.

The center, which opens Nov. 18, is strategically situated at the intersection of two major interstate highways and is located in the downtown section of a state capital.

It will be marketed with other attractions in the region, such as Elvis Presley's Graceland and the Martin Luther King Jr. museum, which are two hours away in Memphis, Tenn., and draw 1 million visitors a year.

The focus in Little Rock will be broad appeal, a library that is not just a repository for scholars but also an attraction for the leisure visitor, said Clinton Foundation President Skip Rutherford.

In addition to items such as the president's transportation bill and an exhibit on his impeachment, visitors will be able to see Clinton's collection of Presley memorabilia; Mickey Mantle's rookie baseball card, which was a gift for the president; and an exhibit on the Clintons' White House pets, cat Socks and Labrador retriever Buddy.

The $165 million library, built with private money, sprawls across 148,000 square feet near downtown Little Rock. That is more than 40 times larger than the Herbert Hoover library when it was built in 1962.

Rutherford predicts the Clinton center will draw more than 300,000 visitors a year. He calls it, “a signature landmark for Arkansas and the mid-South...America's newest destination.”