The future Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park will not house an official U.S. government presidential library.
I know a lot of people call it the Obama Library.
But really, it’s the Obama Center.
Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle decided that a government-run National Archives and Records Administration facility won’t be incorporated into the Obama complex.
The former first couple are pioneering a new model in sidestepping NARA — nixing a building to be used mainly by archivists and scholars.
I visited the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas on Monday.
The library is a building that is subservient to the more impressive museum. The door leading to the library from the museum was marked “authorized personnel only.”
What will there be instead at the Obama Center? It’s clear now there will be a branch of the Chicago Public Library at the Center, designed to cater to the surrounding South Side community, not out-of-town Obama scholars and researchers.
While there are a lot of details to be hammered out, I cannot foresee the extremely Obama-friendly CPL board not striking a deal with the Obama Foundation.
Why do I say that?
The CPL board members include Barbara Bowman, the mother of former Obama White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett; Lynn Lockwood, a close ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and it is chaired by Linda Johnson Rice, the business executive who was a co-chair of the major fundraising drive for the National Museum of African American History in Washington.
Obama’s two terms took place entirely in the digital era. He’s the first president to have all his records fully digitalized.
Digitalization allowed Obama to break away from the NARA; the agency will house the Obama records at another site.
That also means the Obama Foundation won’t be stuck following a lot of NARA rules influencing the design of and financing for the Center — for which the Obamas’ are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to build.
“The question is, what is this library?” said Tod Williams, an Obama Center architect, talking about the evolving design of the Center with Billie Tsien, his wife and partner, at one of the many sessions that took place at the inaugural Obama Summit.
“It’s not the archival library. That can be placed anywhere and which will be digitalized,” he said.
Williams said the “intention,” is “this will be a branch of the Chicago Public Library. . . . The foundation has been in discussions [with the CPL] and exactly what it will be and how it will best serve the community and how it can best energize the site” have not yet been decided.
Talks between the Obama Foundation and the Chicago Public Library have been ongoing quietly for months.
The minutes for the June 20 Board of Directors meeting state that the “CPL is in active discussions with the Obama Foundation for construction/build out of a branch in an area that does not currently have a branch library; will have more information on whether we will move forward by the end of July.”
Well, July has come and gone and based on the agenda and minutes on the CPL website, nothing has surfaced for the public to discuss.
I’ve tried for weeks to get information from the CPL about the status of negotiations and where the concerns and issues may be. The CPL does not want to discuss the project for now.
CPL spokesman Patrick Molloy said in an email Wednesday, “I’m sorry, discussions have continued but I still do not have an update.”
Other design details:
• Williams said there have been about 30 versions of the iconic Obama Center tower, where the museum will be housed.
• The top of the tower will be “reflection space” for people, with views of Lake Michigan and the city.
•There will be lots of alcoves for “people to duck and have a conversation.”