Becoming a Researcher at the Jimmy Carter Library

It was by accident that I stumbled onto the records for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Presidential Campaign. Not just a few records, mind you, but one of the biggest collections in his entire library. How big? Well, if you must know. “I must, I must!” 426 containers of files, 739 linear feet, and 186 linear feet open for research. The records from Carter’s campaign includes everything from correspondence, memoranda, letters, handwritten notes, studies, speeches, recommendations, position papers, press releases, briefing papers, proposals, studies, reports, political statements, and news clippings.

The opportunity to browse through this information would provide information and perspective on what it was like for Jimmy Carter and his staff to run a presidential campaign. I was able to access his political strategy, budgeting, press procedures, advertising operations, legal matters, resumes of staff, travel requests, and a ton of other information I had not previously considered.

mklibrary jimmy carter presidental center

Let’s back up to how I got to the Carter Presidential Center for the sake of storytelling. Near the end of January, I was offered to tag along on a trip to Atlanta, Georgia. I’d never been to Atlanta and didn’t really know much about the city or area. It seemed like the perfect reason to go. I love exploring new places and learning about them, and this was my ticket.

Not two weeks later, I found myself some 36,000 feet above the air watching the American countryside zoom by. As I browsed the airline’s WiFi, planning out things to do, I realized there was a Presidential Library in Atlanta, surprisingly close to where I was staying. Not too long ago, if I had been offered the chance to visit a prior President’s library, I would have skipped out on the experience. I’m not into the political scene, have no attachment to past Presidents, and there is a severe lack of good food on premises. Some friends of mine had visited another President’s library and raved on how interesting it was, so I figured I’d visit Jimmy Carter’s and maybe I’d find some inspiration for my plans to discover what its like to run for President of the United States.

I set time in my schedule to visit the Carter Presidential Center right away. It felt pretty boring in my mind, compared to the countless other adventures, hikes, and food I was experiencing. The visit kept getting pushed back for arbitrary reasons. Finally, near the end of my week stay, it was raining pretty hard and I was forced indoors.

My visit to the Carter Presidential Center began with a walk through the Museum. The entire tour was far more expansive than I had expected. There was quite a lot to see and the walking was well laid out to bring visitors through a timeline of Carter’s life. I kept an open mind for inspiration and guidance for my own journey. One thing which struck me was how involved the entire Carter family had been. His wife, siblings, cousins, distant relatives, all seemed very keen on donating their time and helping him in any way possible. Their dedication was incredibly impressive. I am interested in how involved family members were for other Presidents.

mk library carter museum map

After winding my way through the museum, I realized I was missing a big portion. The research building. If staff from the Carter Presidential Center are reading this: The initial signs for driving in and where to walk to the research library versus museum are a bit confusing. I also could have asked several of the friendly staff walking around, but chose not too.

For those of you whom have never been to a Presidential Library for research, there is a process to get in. Up until now, I had been winging my entire experience. I didn’t have direction or a specific purpose. As I walked up the winding pathway to the library entrance, I was stopped by two gruff guards. I was received a brief interrogation as to my purposes. I wiffle-waffled as to why I was there and they weren’t convinced enough to let me in. I told security I just wanted to see what was available and write about my experience as a blogger. After being rejected several times and not leaving, they finally agreed to let me through the locked doors and called an additional person to interview me and determine if I should receive access.

During my 10 or 15 minutes of waiting in the entryway, or interrogation holding room, aptly named in my mind, I did some searching with my phone and wrote down notes on things I should try to accomplish while here. The next interviewer arrived and I presented her with my questions and tasks. She decided to let me through the next set of doors, where I would go through a final interview and be signed in.

Throughout the entire process, every person I had communicated with had been very nice, despite their skepticism of me. This final person, hereby known as Archivist I talked with turned out to be exceedingly amazing and helpful. As I told the Archivist about my project, the enthusiasm was incredible, with fingers flying over the keyboard at breakneck speed, assisting in finding me the exact materials that I would need to start, which sections were relevant, and guided me on how to read the indices.

I was informed the library would be closing in 30 minutes, and I had 15 minutes to get any requests for material in. Archivist realized I had no idea what I was doing and guided me to the exact spots I would need, and started pulling some PDFs and binders for me to look through while I completed the paperwork portion of receiving access to the Jimmy Carter Library.

Finally, I was an official researcher! This was a thrilling moment in my life. Upon returning home, I pulled this card out quite often to show friends. Its still in my wallet. You never know when I’ll need it.

mk library jimmy carter library researcher card

I knew I wouldn’t have enough time in 15 to 30 minutes to look through what turned into a large project. I walked in having no idea what to expect, and now I was full of energy and terribly excited to go through Carter’s campaign files. I started with an overview, and Archivist sent me a PDF of the Collection Summary for Records of the 1976 Campaign Committee to Elect Jimmy Carter: A Guide to Its Records at the Jimmy Carter Library. The 124 PDF would be my homework for after the library closed. I wanted to read through it and determine how to strategize an effective visit the next morning. With limited time on my trip, in addition to wanting to complete some other activities, having a strong strategy and priority on which things to read would be important.

I put in my first request for a box from the archives. I started with a campaign manual to get my feet wet before the full dive in and get a feel for what the process would be like.

mk library jimmy carter campaign manual by hamilton jordon 94

I knew a lot of laws related to the Federal Election Commission and other things had changed, but I was more interested in processes than the actual laws. How were things accomplished? What in here would help me with my own campaign. What was life like on the campaign trail. I had a feeling the 1976 Campaign Collection would provide an immense of insight a walk through the Carter Museum didn’t display. With some photos quickly snapped of the papers, I put everything away and bid farewell to Archivist until the following morning.

Upon my return for day number two, I was let in much more quickly. I had a card now and I wasn’t afraid to whip it out. I planned enough ahead to pack a couple sandwiches, expecting to be there for most of the day. With a stack of requests in hand, I began turning them in. I had everything in order, starting from the beginning of the collection to the end.

Not too long after my first request, a phone call from the location of the Collection rang. The person grabbing the boxes couldn’t read my handwriting. I couldn’t remember which numbers I requested, so both boxed were begrudgingly brought up. The person wheeling in the cart gave me the stink eye. I felt the fear of God. This very Southern woman reminded me of my grandmother and gave me a very stern talking-to about my handwriting, or lack thereof. I profusely apologized. I was informed if I made any more requests they would be ignored and she would go on break. I responded by shoving more requests into her hands. I received another stink eye. Note to anyone official reading this: She was in reality adorable and incredibly nice and helpful. We had an understanding of one another. She quickly returned with my next set of requests, taking note of how I was organizing boxes and paperwork to sift through, and stacked future boxes on the cart in a way which expedited my process.

Some 6 hours later, I had taken about 400 photos of various documents, and sorted through thousands of pages. I’ve been going back through my captured documents, organizing and sorting them. There is a lot of insight which will provide perspective and guidance on my own campaign. The amount of information and additional things to consider when running a Presidential campaign is quite intimidating. Suddenly, I feel like 4 years is not enough time.

mk

6 Comments
  1. I didn’t know this type of presidential library even existed let alone anyone from public would be allowed to go in . Your persistence certainly paid off for you

    1. A lot of it has to do with the Freedom of Information Act, and a lot of it has to do with Jimmy Carter donating the paperwork to the Federal Government / Public Domain. I think the vetting process has more to making sure qualified people handle old original documents with care. Imagine if hundreds of people handled these documents per day just because they were out in the open.

  2. Oh my goodness! This what a fun political adventure! I’ve never been to a President’s library, but your experience has me totally intrigued. I love your writing and descriptions. Reading your post I feel like I was right there beside you when all of this happened. And I can imagine that nice Southern gal giving you a bit of a stink eye as you handed her more document requests! On your two visits to the Jimmy Carter Library you made her earn her keep. I’m waiting in suspense to learn more about your upcoming presidential campaign. 🙂

    1. Thanks Denay – I’m glad you were able to join me, so to speak. If you’re near a Presidential Library, you might find the museum portions incredibly interesting and worth visiting.

  3. I love a good research trip. Those are the funnest days at our museum when we get into the research and find something new and undiscovered.

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