Recalling her encounter with the nation's 32nd president in 1931, Mary Keirle pauses amid fragrant roses in the garden adjacent to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y. (pop. 20,851).
"I was 8 years old," remembers Keirle, 87, of Ballwin, Mo., during her visit last summer to the nation's first presidential library. "He was in my hometown of Alton, Ill., campaigning for the presidency, standing on the porch of the last car on a train."
While Keirle literally grew up while FDR was in the White House, she was eager to learn more about the four-term president, especially since his programs and policies from 1933 to 1945 forever changed the United States. "I was a freshman in college when Pearl Harbor was struck," she says of Japan's attack on the U.S. naval base on Dec. 7, 1941.
Keirle left the library with a deeper appreciation of Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor. "I was surprised that they really lived a far more humble life than I expected," she says. "And I thought the simplicity of FDR's library—and the fact that he built it himself—was very interesting."
Recognizing the need to preserve presidential documents, Roosevelt donated his papers to the federal government in 1939 and, with his mother, gave 16 acres from their Hyde Park estate to build a permanent repository for them.
"A nation must . . . above all, believe in the capacity of its own people to learn from the past," Roosevelt said at the library's dedication on June 30, 1941, "so that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future."
Roosevelt became the only sitting president with such a facility and, since his death in office in 1945, his example has been followed by every subsequent president, making FDR the Father of Presidential Libraries.
"Before FDR, when presidents left the White House, they took their papers with them," says Lynn Bassanese, 58, the Roosevelt library's deputy director. "Some gave them to the Library of Congress or their universities, but lots put them in their attics, and they were lost to history. Roosevelt believed the papers should be in one place and people should have a chance to look at them."
Today, 13 presidential libraries dot the nation in the presidents' home states, including the newest —the George W. Bush Presidential Library—operating temporarily in Lewisville, Texas, and scheduled to open permanently in Dallas in 2013.
Unlike traditional libraries, they serve as extensive archives and museums to assemble documents, photographs, audio, video and artifacts of a president and his administration for study and discussion by the public.
"We preserve our democracy by making these records accessible," says Sharon Fawcett, 64, who oversees the Office of Presidential Libraries for the National Archives and Records Administration. "The libraries [help us] understand the role of government in the past. Even if you might not have voted for a Republican or a Democrat, you still see what our history is and understand there are different points of view."
The libraries' accompanying museums give visitors a glimpse inside the White House. They can see Harry Truman's famous "The buck stops here!" desk sign and the bullhorn used by George W. Bush at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Other presidential exhibits include Jimmy Carter's Nobel Peace Prize, the telephone used by Richard Nixon to speak with the first astronauts on the moon, and the limousine that transported Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford.
The libraries also host conferences and lectures for the public and educational programs for students. They are popular vacation stops for travelers and field trip destinations for school groups.
"Our son is really into World War II," says Paul Frederick, 33, of Mulberry, Kan., touring the Roosevelt library with his wife, Maradeth, 33, and their children, Abraham, 6, and Ruth, 4. "We thought we'd let him see an aspect he hasn't read a lot about—FDR and his influence."
Abraham was especially impressed with the stately White House desk where Roosevelt signed declarations of war against Japan, Germany and Italy, plus the GI Bill, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act and other important New Deal legislation. The wooden desk was a fixture of Roosevelt's meetings with world leaders, most notably a 1941 news conference that included Winston Churchill, then prime minister of Great Britain.
"All the other presidential libraries have replicas of desks because after Truman they didn't allow them to take the desks," says Bassanese, noting that Roosevelt's maple burl-veneered desk is one of the museum's more popular exhibits.
Other exhibits range from a lock of Roosevelt's blond hair as a youngster to the steel leg braces he wore as an adult after contracting polio. His library also houses 17 million pages of documents, many laced with Roosevelt's handwritten comments. "I've been here since 1972, and it still gives me a bit of a goose bump to have in my hand the same pages [he signed]," Bassanese says.
Each year, about 2 million people visit presidential libraries, most of which charge fees of $6 to $12, comparable to a local museum.
The Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif., with more than 302,000 visits, was the most visited branch last year, while the Herbert Hoover library in West Branch, Iowa (pop. 2,188), had the fewest, with more than 49,000 visits.
"Ronald Reagan is an icon of the 20th century, and there's intense interest in him personally," says Duke Blackwood, 52, director of the Reagan library that opened two years after the nation's 40th president left office in 1989.
Beside breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, visitors can board the Air Force One that transported seven presidents from 1973 to 2001; tour a replica of the White House rose garden; and explore exhibits highlighting Reagan's years as an actor, California governor and president.
Reagan called presidential libraries "classrooms of democracy," and Blackwood says the library's design and operation reflect that spirit. Reagan's is the only library to host presidential debates, most recently among Republican candidates before the 2008 primary election.
"An informed citizenry is important—not just education in the traditional book sense but an education of the electorate, which Ronald Reagan was talking about," Blackwood says.
By law, presidential libraries, like their holdings, belong to the American people.
In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act establishing the procedures initiated by Roosevelt for privately built and federally maintained libraries to preserve the papers of future presidents. A 1978 law dictates that presidential records are owned publicly, not privately. This allows any researcher—from authors and filmmakers to students and history buffs—to access unclassified records.
"We trace the history of our country by our presidents," says Cynthia Koch, 60, director of the Roosevelt library. "There's no better way to understand our nation's political history and its changes over time than to go to each of these presidential libraries."
Kenneth Shafer, 40, of Traverse City, Mich., has toured every permanent presidential library through that of Bill Clinton, in Little Rock, Ark. While Nixon is his favorite president, he says the John F. Kennedy library in Boston left the biggest impression, with its presentation of a president's life cut short by an assassin's bullet.
"I have a lot of love for this country and respect for the presidency, regardless of politics," says Shafer, who was born when Nixon was in office. "Presidential libraries are like a little bit of Washington, D.C., transplanted into another state."