Bush Center prepares for open records onslaught in 2014

By Caty Hirst
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Originally published Dec. 21, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK — Though hundreds of thousands of people have visited the George W. Bush Presidential Center over the past six months, the lifeblood of the library — the billions of pages of archives — has yet to open.

Presidential records are not available to the public for five years after a president leaves office, but that period is up Jan. 20 for the documents from Bush’s administration.

The archives will then fall under the Freedom of Information Act, allowing citizens to request documents on everything from 9-11 to Hurricane Katrina.

“That is the D-Day of all presidential libraries right there,” said John Orrell, public affairs and marketing director for the library.

“Our team has been working toward this for five years,” Orrell said. “Best practices are put into place, and you learn lessons from all the other presidential libraries who have gone through this.”

Orrell said the staff, including about 40 archivists, has received extensive training because a specialist must read each document line by line to redact information deemed sensitive to national security.

“Now we just have to make sure everyone is well-rested for the 20th,” Orrell joked, adding that the goal is to fill each request in 20 to 30 business days.

The center houses 70 million documents and 4 million photos and has more than 80 terabytes of digital information, including 1 billion pages of emails. By comparison, the William J. Clinton Presidential Centerhas about 4 terabytes of digital information.

Reaching out to North Texas

The center has already exceeded attendance goals, with about 300,000 people traveling from around the world to visit since exhibits opened in May. The goal is to have 500,000 attendees in the first year, Orrell said.

To do that, officials plan to reach out to surrounding cities, including Fort Worth, and bring the chambers of commerce and other community organizations on board.

“We have spent these six months getting comfortable at our current location and really solidifying these close entities. Next year, that is when we are going to start reaching into Fort Worth. … We are part of the Dallas-Fort Worth region. We are one big family,” Orrell said.

Though no official study has been completed, Phillip J. Jones, chief executive officer and president of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, said it’s safe to assume that the library’s economic impact on the region has been in the tens of millions of dollars. He said a good deal of that is likely in surrounding towns.

“I think visitors don’t know or care about city boundaries,” Jones said.

“They may start their visit in Dallas and go to the library … and then once they have done that, then they will probably want to expand their search beyond what Dallas has to offer and visit the surrounding communities. I think it has been a great asset to the entire region, not just Dallas,” Jones said.

He said an official economic impact study won’t come out until the library has been open at least a year. But the library does attract international tourists to the area, he said.

A moment in history

The George W. Bush Foundation raised the funds to build the $250 million three-story red-brick-and-limestone center at Southern Methodist University. It houses the library, a museum and an institute honoring the onetime Texas governor. The foundation turned over the center to the National Archives and Records Administration in April.

The records administration will run the facility, as it does the other 12 presidential libraries and museums.

The opening ceremony April 25 was attended by President Barack Obama and former Presidents George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Other dignitaries included first lady Michelle Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush.

More than 10,000 people crowded onto the campus for the dedication.

The center features a brief history of Bush and his family’s life, as well as key moments from his presidency, with news articles, photos, video clips and memorabilia spread across 14,000 square feet of exhibit space.

The museum also features temporary exhibits throughout the year. “Home for the Holidays: Christmas at the White House 2001” is on display through Jan. 5.