The Presidential Library System: A Quiescent Policy Subsystem

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Virginia Tech


This study examines the Presidential Library System, an agency within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), as an example of a policy subsystem. A policy subsystem may be defined as an informal political coalition of individuals from different parts of a formal policy structure who cooperate to influence policy-making. Actors in a policy subsystem are multifarious, they span both public and private sectors at various levels of government, and may include agency personnel, congressional committee members, interest group participants, citizens of localities affected by the subsystem, and others. A policy subsystem's strength lies in its ability to draw upon bureaucratic expertise, legislative leverage, and interest-group capacities to communicate with the government about the area of public policy it is vitally concerned with. Despite the 60 year existence of the Presidential Library System, its nationwide geographic distribution, and its approximately $30 million/year allocation from the federal budget, it is not widely recognized as a policy system and it has not been the subject of a detailed, scholarly description.

The Presidential Libraries policy subsystem is described by tracing its development and mapping the richness of the administrative and political processes which support its continuing viability. The specific research questions addressed are:1) how do the administrative and political processes of this policy subsystem unfold, 2) how do these processes provide system maintenance, and 3) who are the players?

Qualitative research techniques, via a case study methodology, were used to address these questions.. In-depth interviews were conducted with the directors of the ten Presidential Libraries, the staff of the Office of Presidential Libraries at NARA, and key stakeholders in the system. Questions addressed included: what do all of the presidential libraries share?, what is unique about each?, to what extent IS the Presidential Library System a policy subsystem?, and how is government organized to deal with presidential libraries and their mission of 1) preserving and providing researchers access to presidential papers and historical materials, and 2) providing museums and educational programming designed to give the general public a better understanding of the individual Presidents, the institution of the Presidency, and the American political system as a whole?



policy subsystems, presidential libraries