February 17, 2018

Four Universities Selected as Finalists to Host Obama Library


The Barack Obama Foundation (BOF) announced on September 15 that four academic institutions have qualified as potential sites for the Barack Obama Presidential Library (OPL). Columbia University, the University of Hawaii (UH), the University of Chicago (UChicago), and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) were selected from among a pool of 13 applicants who responded to the BOF’s Request for Qualifications (RFQ) issued March 2014. The four will now respond to a Request for Proposal detailing “the proposed management and organization of the project, site development plans, community partnerships, potential for academic collaboration, marketing and attraction strategy, and information about any financial and other commitments from the host or other partners.” Completed proposals will be due on December 11. The BOF will then evaluate the proposals, with the president and first lady making the final decision.

The facility and surrounding campus will house the OPL as well as the Barack Obama Presidential Museum, BOF offices, and an academic institute that would “enhance the pursuit of the President’s initiatives beyond 2017 and have local, regional, and global impacts.”

The BPL will be the 14th presidential library operated and maintained through the federal government’s National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). (The most recent, the George W. Bush Presidential Center, opened April 25, 2013, on the campus of Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX.) Presidential libraries are funded through a combination of congressional appropriations, which go to NARA for administrative costs, and private sources, which generally cover construction and programming.

These private funds are being raised by the BOF, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in January 2014. The BOF will help the Obamas vet the final proposals, and will eventually negotiate a joint use agreement with NARA for transfer of the presidential records, which officially become NARA’s jurisdiction the day after a new president’s inauguration. The OPL will cost roughly $500 million. So far, the BOF estimates that it has raised $850,000­­–$1.75 million.


Because the OPL will have an academic component, possibly including a degree-granting program, the strongest applicants were all established universities. Each of the four has its own connection to Obama’s history.

Chicago, with two sites in the running, is the Obamas’ home. As LJ noted in April, the president has strong ties to the city, where he worked as a community organizer before attending law school, joined a local law firm, and served as state senator representing Chicago’s South Side. He also taught at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years, and UChicago is considered a strong contender for the site award. The OPL “would be a source of inspiration for young people in the City of Chicago,” according to the UChicago’s FAQ for the project. “They would resonate in a particular way to the story of two fellow Chicagoans whose journey led from the neighborhoods of the South Side to the White House.”

UIC is Chicago’s only public research university, which Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares believes aligns its values with Obama’s: “As a land-grant institution, UIC makes it possible for aspiring students, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status, to obtain a high-quality education at an affordable cost. Only a research university with a public mission can extend the president’s legacy to all who could benefit from it, locally and worldwide.”

A website explaining the Hawaiian project’s goals also invokes the president’s ideals: “Located between the Americas and Asia, with greater diversity than any other state, Hawai‘i can host an institution that looks outward to the world and forward to the future.” Obama’s parents met while students at UH; Obama was born in Hawaii, and spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Honolulu. Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama’s half sister, currently teaches at UH’s College of Education.

Columbia, in turn—where Obama received his Bachelor’s degree in political science—offers the competitive resources of an Ivy League university and the cosmopolitan milieu of New York City.


The Chicago Tribune polled 800 registered voters in the week before the finalists were announced, reporting on September 17 that a majority of Illinois voters did not want their tax dollars being used for a presidential library. Chicago city residents were more positive, with 61 percent in favor. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan had hoped to commit $100 million from the state if the OPM was built in Chicago, but the measure has so far proved unpopular on both sides of the state’s House and Senate.

Accessibility will also be an issue. While the UH site is located on eight acres of a thriving coastline district, it is still at a disadvantage compared with the accessibility of the three mainland universities. However, the Chicago and New York campuses—located in urban neighborhoods—will need to find space for a new building complex that was not part of their original expansion plans. The library itself would need to accommodate more than 20,000 cubic feet of unclassified documents, 804 cubic feet of audio-visual records, and 15 thousand cubic feet of artifacts.

UChicago would not situate the OPL on its Hyde Park campus, but in a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, where it would help stimulate needed economic development. UIC’s proposal includes three possible sites: two on campus and one in a neighboring area, where a community group is partnering with the university on the bid. Columbia would locate the OPL on its Manhattanville campus, a 17-acre site in upper Manhattan that it has been developing since 2003.

BOF chairman Nesbitt says, “We are grateful to every institution that expressed interest in carrying President Obama’s legacy forward. These four potential partners have come the farthest in meeting our criteria and have each demonstrated a strong vision for the future Obama Presidential Library. We look forward to working with each institution to further refine their proposals over the coming months, and to presenting our recommendations to the President and First Lady early next year.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.



  1. Anonymous - CU says:

    Until Bollinger’s Columbia University shows a zero tolerance policy for sex harass and assault, the President and 1st Lady should not consider Columbia University an appropriate place to library his presidential documents. Keeping it’s name off of that Federal Dept of Ed – OCR List of schools for which there are sex assault and harass complaints filed, what Columbia University had to have done to stay off that list when it had more than 20 complaints filed by undergraduates against it within the last 12 months alone AND IN ADDITION TO the at least 3 more that were separately filed by graduate students in civil court and that is not including those complaints filed internally and waiting to exhaust the internal complaint and resolution mechanisms students and faculty are required to submit complaint through, signals that Columbia U doesn’t currently reflect the level of integrity the Obama Administration itself has personified. Until sex assault and harassment, and retaliation for reporting it and asking to be transferred away from it at Columbia U is not enabled and tolerated, Obama’s library should go elsewhere…his legacy deserves better than that.

  2. Illinois Librarian says:

    Chicago is the ideal location for Pres. Obama’s library. Illinois colleges and universities have a long award-winning history of multitype library cooperation. Now is the time for UIUC and UofC to partner with each other, instead of competing, to build and maintain this world-class Presidential Library.
    Let’s demonstrate that public-private partnerships can work.
    Serving the public (all classes, races, ethnicities, and religions) is what the Obamas stand for. Our excellent Chicago universities should demonstrate their support of equality with an innovative public-private library partnership plan.