Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Cataloged: The 1963 White House Library (Socialist Books Included)

Then and now photos of the White House Library. (“Now” photo by Flickr user Jay Tamboli).

Overnight, some twenty LibraryThing members(1) entered, or “flash mob cataloged” an entire, historic library—the White House Library of the early 1960s and, largely, today. We did it from a limited-edition “Short-Title List” printed by the White House Historical Society, using LibraryThing’s 700-odd library data sources.(2)

The library, WHLibrary1963, contains some 1,700 books. It joins some 128 other “Legacy Libraries” cataloged or being cataloged by members. It’s our second Kennedy-themed library, after the incomplete JohnFKennedy—or third, if you count Marilyn Monroe‘s (interesting) collection.

Why We Did It. An amusing train-wreck of blog outrage moved us to action. Rob Port, a conservative radio host and blogger took a White House tour and spotted some books on the wall that made him jump. Hearing or mis-hearing that the books had been picked by Michelle Obama, Port blogged Photo Evidence: Michelle Obama Keeps Socialist Books In The White House Library.

Port’s picture included books like:

And a number of other, not-so-socialist titles, like U.S. Senators and Their World, all from the 40s, 50s and 60s. (Needless to say it didn’t apparently dawn on Port to look the books up, or wonder why they all seemed a tad old.)

The White House Library.The Washington Post‘s Short Stack blog knocked down the story. Far from being picked by Michelle Obama, the library was in fact assembled at the request of another First Lady—Jacqueline Kennedy.

Kennedy, who also oversay the redecoration of the room itself, delegated the selection to Yale librarian James T. Babb, who convened a small committee, including the editors of the Jefferson and Adams papers and the Kennedy aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The work took about a year.

The book list was published in the New York Times in August 1963. A limited edition Short Title-List was printed in 1967. Between 1963 and 1967 a number of books were added to the list. From some Flickr pictures, it looks like a few more books may have been added—perhaps in the Johnson administration?—to the actual library.

What does it mean? While not a window into Obama’s book tastes, still less his socialism, the library is a window into something. Browsing through it, I can’t help feeling a sense of the time, and of the opinions and culture of the men who assembled it, and were intended to use it.

As I see it, Kennedy’s administration was marked by a rare embrace of intellect, ideas and even scholarship, but was also constrained somewhat by the mental world of contemporary east-coast elites—the “Harvards” that irritated Johnson so much. Although flattened by politic initial choices—it includes no living authors of fiction, and few works by non-US citizens— the 1963 White House Library was, in a sense, the library of the “Best and Brightest,” and it reflects their world view. As fun as it was to do, it’s perhaps a shame we don’t have similar collections for all the presidents since then. However interesting, it would be a shame if the White House Library forever remained a 1960s relic.

Come talk about the library here.

Continuing cataloging and cleanup progress here.

1. amba, ansate, bell7, bokai, carport, cbl_tn, ccc3579, clamairy, cpirmann, jbd1, jjlong, merry10, moibibliomaniac, momerath, SilentInAWay, spookykitten, theophila, timspalding, thornton37814, UtopianPessimist.
2. I kicked it off by driving from Portland down to the University of New Hampshire, which had the closest copy of the limited-edition Short-Title List. I love that my job periodically allows me to get in a car for the sole purpose of getting a book at some far-away library.

Labels: legacy libraries


  1. rob says:

    Any reason for the restricted access to Marilyn Monroe's library?

  2. Abby says:

    Whoops—Tim had the link going to an internal server. Fixed, you should be able to get to it now!

Leave a Reply