“Presidential Archivist: A Memoir” By: David E. Alsobrook
“Presidential Archivist: A Memoir”
Author: David E. Alsobrook
Publisher: Mercer University Press
Price: $29.00 (Hardback)
Alabama Historian Tells of Presidents and Their Libraries
After a long and remarkable career as an archivist, in Montgomery, Washington, D.C. and then at the Carter, Bush 41 and William J. Clinton presidential libraries, David Alsobrook retired in 2007 to his native Alabama.
In 2017 he published his prize-winning study set in a section of the town where his family’s roots lay: “Southside: Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and Its people, 1890- 1945.” Here he chronicles the towns economic, racial and social history and examines the class structure of this small but representative place.
Alsobrook examines in some detail the ways in which Donald Comer, son of the Governor, expressed capitalist paternalism in the most humane way imaginable, setting up for his workers not just the company store, but health care insurance, the baseball team, a Boy Scout troop, a company band, a community center, mortgage loans, you name it.
He served as President of the Alabama Historical Association, 2017-2018.
David Alsobrook passed away in October of 2021 but not before he had finished this account of his personal life with wife Ellen and, more importantly here, his professional life.
Alsobrook was an archivist. He cared about the correct pronunciation. The place where the papers reside is the archives. The adjective is archival but the practitioner is the archivist, emphasis on the first syllable.
He might never have become an archivist except that in the early seventies, in History as in English and French and a lot of the humanities, there were more PhDs than professorial jobs.
The early chapters of this book, dealing with his training at Auburn’s newly established Archival Training Program and his work at the State Archives in Montgomery, are detailed, insider baseball and not lively reading. Gracious to a fault, Alsobrook praises whomever he can and omits no one who was kind to him. We get lists of Auburn professors and fellow students.
A young researcher, J. Mills Thornton III, gets special praise as does Edwin C. Bridges; both went on to splendid careers.
The story gets more lively, as one might expect, when Alsobrook goes to work in Washington, at The National Archives. He is involved with the Gerald Ford papers, the Nixon papers and then the Carter White House, coming to know first-hand many of America’s most powerful figures.
When Jimmy Carter is not reelected in 1980, Alsobrook begins the Carter Presidential Materials “Project”—the name for gathering and moving presidential papers, in this case to an abandoned U.S. Post Office annex in Atlanta.
His team assumed control of 27 million pages of documents, 1.5 million photographs, and 30 thousand artifacts. There were 19 tractor-trailer trucks full.
Then they go to work: appraisal, preservation, arrangement and description. Alsobrook was with the Carter papers for 10 years.
An unusual aspect of this work was that Carter was less interested in a museum and library that would facilitate research about his career than in the Carter Center projects like global health and housing.
In 1992, Alsobrook went to work on the George H. W. Bush papers—36 million pages of records, 1 million photos and 40 thousand museum artifacts, all moved to Houston.
We learn in this section that it is NOT a good idea to have a presidential library on a university campus. There were turf conflicts and strife with Texas A& M.
A joke was also generated—don’t let Alsobrook work on the Clinton White House Papers. Both his previous presidents had lost after one term.
Nevertheless, he did go on to direct the Clinton Library in Little Rock, and it is a jewel, architecturally and for research. It also revitalized a section of downtown, as Clinton hoped it would.
Although always judicious, Alsobrook does offer some up-close appraisals of his bosses. The Bushes were beyond friendly: “they warmly welcomed us into their large extended family and essentially became our surrogate parents.”
Jimmy Carter was a compilation of virtues—ethics, intelligence, an engineer’s orderliness—but could have an unforgiving nature, a dry sense of humor, to say the least, and often used a “didactic preacher mode” with his staff.
Bill Clinton had great focus, a powerful intellect and a tireless curiosity and in fact “usually appeared to be the smartest person in the room.”
The Clinton White House, which was an 8-year stretch, generated 77 million pages, 1.95 million photos and 75 thousand artifacts.
It all weighed 625 tons.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.