WASHINGTON - The George W. Bush Presidential Library in University Park could be one of the last brick and mortar institutions of its kind.
Congress is looking for ways to cut the expense of overseeing such buildings, and some researchers say the traditional library setup for keeping presidential documents is outdated in a digital world.
What to do? Use a cave to store vital paper records instead of big compounds. Get out of the museum business and let the president's backers run that part of the library.
Those are some of the ideas being floated by federal archivists, who now are asking the public for suggestions to run the library system at less cost but with better access to presidential papers. The National Archives and Records Administration will deliver its report to Congress this summer.
Although the potential changes are not expected to affect the Bush complex at SMU or any of the other presidential libraries, the outcome could significantly alter how future ones operate.
"We really want to hear from people who care about the libraries or who use the libraries and have suggestions," said Sharon Fawcett, the assistant archivist for presidential libraries.
The agency will accept suggestions until April 17. Congress, after getting the report, will decide whether to act on any of the suggestions, she said.
One possibility is to digitize all the presidential records and put them online, eliminating the need for costly buildings.
More online resources like that would improve public access and cost, said Steve Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.
"In a nutshell that's what they have to do: less marble for the floors and more electrons," said Aftergood, who welcomed the public outreach.
He said most researchers don't need to examine the original document. "If it's the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation, it's nice to see the original. If it's some routine presidential memorandum, an online facsimile is perfectly adequate," he said.
Others ideas raised by the archivists:
Create a central location for all presidential archives across administrations.
Put a former president's nonprofit foundation in charge of the library's museum and its exhibits. That would mean the archivists would just manage and process records.
Benjamin Hufbauer, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville and author of Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory, said that shift would make clear that some museum exhibits are more like extended campaign ads than objective displays of history.
"Just admit it's pure propaganda and stop paying for it with tax dollars," he said.
One argument in favor or the current setup, he said, is that the museums do improve over time, such as the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson's actions in the Vietnam War at his library in Austin.
Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History, called the concept of a central repository interesting. "It's easier [for researchers] than flying to six presidential libraries," he said.
Like the libraries of his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, the George W. Bush Foundation is raising money for an endowment to help build and maintain the complex. The National Archives will manage the records and the museum, and the foundation will run a public policy center there.