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The Best Presidential Libraries History Buffs Should Visit

Updated: Apr. 09, 2024

From the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library to the Barack Obama Presidential Center, these state-of-the-art presidential libraries help American history come alive

Nighttime view of the front entrance John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston on October 29, 2013
DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

America’s presidential libraries

Want to take a deep dive into American history? Every U.S. president since Herbert Hoover (and a few before) has a library dedicated to his life and time in office. These presidential libraries are archives with massive amounts of documents—letters, photographs, diary entries, videos, emails—that provide a treasure trove for historians and anyone else interested in U.S. history. Even better: The museums attached to most presidential libraries have a high entertainment factor. Often using state-of-the-art technology, they provide an unparalleled way to learn facts about U.S. presidents and make history come alive.

See a real Air Force One at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California. Watch an animatronic Lyndon B. Johnson tell a ribald story in his Texas drawl. And touch a piece of metal from the Twin Towers at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. When you visit these presidential libraries, you can learn the things that happen when a president dies and read a multitude of presidential quotes.

Open to visitors of all ages, each presidential library does charge an admission fee (ranging from $3 to $18), with revenues going to support museum operations and programs. Ahead, we have all the details on the ones you should visit right now—and the highlights you won’t want to miss.

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How many presidential libraries are there?

The National Archives and Records Administration operates 15 presidential libraries, documenting President’s Day history and the terms served by Presidents Herbert Hoover through Donald J. Trump. But it all started with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Concerned about what would happen to his papers after his presidency (and believing his administration’s letters, books and memorabilia were part of the heritage of the United States), FDR consulted with historians and decided to build a library on his family property in New York. Creating a model that’s been followed by every president since, the center was constructed with private funds but is operated by the National Archives, an arm of the federal government.

In addition, some presidential libraries (such as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum) are managed by state or local government agencies. The two most recent presidents, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump, have online-only libraries as of now, although the Obama Presidential Center is currently being built in Chicago.

Visitors tour exhibits related to the life of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum February 23, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Atlanta

During his one term in office (1977 to 1981), the 39th president encountered enormous challenges, such as a gas shortage and the American hostage crisis in Iran. When he sought re-election, Carter lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan. “Although stung by his loss, Carter became what many have called the best former president in history, building in Atlanta not only a presidential library but a center devoted to conflict resolution, supervising democratic elections abroad and combating disease,” notes the White House Historical Association. Well into his 90s, the Nobel Peace Prize winner continued to advocate for Habitat for Humanity. And the Jimmy Carter library displays artifacts from before, during and after his presidency.

Don’t miss: Played on 13-foot screens, the Day in the Life of a President audiovisual exhibit follows Carter on December 11, 1978, from when he woke up to when he went to sleep. There’s also a reproduction of the cabin used for vital Camp David meetings, including those that resulted in the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

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Inside the Air Force One Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley, CA
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Getty Images

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

Simi Valley, California

The most visited of the presidential libraries operated by the National Archives is the Ronald Reagan Library, which covers all phases of Reagan’s action-packed life—from movie star to California governor to popular president (1981 to 1989) dubbed “the great communicator.” The center displays a full-size replica of the White House Oval Office, where President Reagan famously never took off his suit jacket. It also features the first-of-its-kind hologram of a president. Interactive exhibits allow you to act in a movie with Reagan, read his handwritten diary (try and tell what a president’s handwriting reveals about him), set the table for a state dinner and more. The memorial site where Ronald and Nancy Reagan were laid to rest is also available to visit at the Reagan Library. It’s carved with the words “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

Don’t miss: The Air Force One Pavilion includes Air Force One tail number 27000, which flew seven U.S. presidents and is on loan from the U.S. Air Force. One of the presidential limousines and Secret Service suburbans used in presidential motorcades is also on display, as well as an actual Irish pub from Ballyporeen, Ireland, where Reagan visited on a diplomatic trip in 1984—it’s now the pavilion’s snack shop.

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FDR Presidential Library...
John Greim/Getty Images

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Hyde Park, New York

Franklin D. Roosevelt, the longest-serving U.S. president (from 1933 until his death in 1945), steered the country through some of its darkest moments, including the Great Depression and World War II. He created the first presidential library by donating his personal and presidential papers to the federal government and raising money to build it on his family’s estate in the scenic Hudson River Valley. The edifice is now the second most visited of the presidential libraries managed by the National Archives. Interactive experiences showcase the political and social life of FDR and his progressive wife, Eleanor (who flew with Amelia Earhart, one of our favorite first lady trivia facts).

Don’t miss: At the FDR library, sit and listen to FDR’s famous fireside chats, with immersive environments and period furnishings. Interactive touch screens are also offered where you can learn more about some of FDR’s most significant and highly controversial decisions. Using digital flipbooks filled with documents, photographs and excerpts from historians (with multiple viewpoints), you can delve into topics such as the Japanese-American internment and the New Deal.

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Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

West Branch, Iowa

One of the most controversial presidents in American history, Herbert Hoover led the country from 1929 to 1933, during the start of the Great Depression. His library, the smallest of any run by the National Archives, features exhibits from his childhood (he was raised a Quaker and orphaned at the age of 9) to his post-presidency years dedicated to social causes. Known as the “Great Humanitarian,” Hoover, both before and after World War II, succeeded in transporting food to people in war-torn areas around the globe. As head of the U.S. Food Administration, Hoover boosted food donations abroad by encouraging Americans to cut back on their consumption—to Hooverize meant to economize on food.

Don’t miss: The rotunda contains a 16-foot-tall red granite map of the world with 57 brass sheaves of wheat—one in every country where Hoover fed people. Also featured are seven of first lady Lou Henry Hoover’s home movies. Shot in an early form of color film, they have been restored and are believed to be the earliest color movies of the White House grounds, including one showing the president playing medicine ball on the White House lawn and the first lady romping with the family dogs.

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John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library and Museum
David Lefranc/Getty Images

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Boston

In 1965, Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the 35th president (1961 to 1963), chose then-obscure architect I.M. Pei to design the John Kennedy Library in Boston, one of the best cities for history buffs. Pei created a stark white building shaped like the prow of a ship that overlooks the entrance to Boston Harbor. At 166,000 square feet, JFK’s presidential library is the largest one managed by the National Archives. The main exhibits feature remastered films of the president’s iconic speeches and press conferences, including the Kennedy-Nixon debates and his inaugural address. Visitors are also immersed in footage from civil rights leaders. Fans of Camelot won’t want to miss the Ceremonial Room, which highlights the first lady’s celebration of the arts and American culture through her planning of ceremonial and state events.

Don’t miss: The museum’s Oval Office, which contains replicas of the HMS Resolute desk (a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes), Kennedy’s Oval Office desk chair and the signing desk that was used for Executive Orders and treaties.

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Truman Museum
Via Trumanlibrary.gov

Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

Independence, Missouri

Vice President Harry S. Truman became the 33rd president of the United States when Franklin D. Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945. A haberdasher (he owned a gentleman’s accessories shop) who never attended college, Truman became known for his quips (“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog”), his sharp sartorial sense (he reportedly owned 403 neckties and 96 pairs of shoes) and for becoming the first president with a Secret Service code name (check out these other presidential firsts). But he is most famous for authorizing the nuclear bombing of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945, acts that ended World War II. The recently renovated Truman Library showcases the president’s life and political career in an expansive exhibit entitled An Ordinary Man, An Extraordinary Career.

Don’t miss: A sign that reads “The Buck Stops Here” was made in a federal reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma, and displayed on Truman’s Oval Office desk—it refers to not passing responsibility to anyone else. In the museum’s rotunda, you can also view Thomas Hart Benton’s mural “Independence and the Opening of the West.” The well-known artist depicted Independence, Missouri, over three decades, from 1817 to 1847. During the course of the mural’s painting, Truman and Benton became life-long friends.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home

Abilene, Kansas

The only five-star general to become president (from 1953 to 1961), this amiable World War II hero was elected in two landslide victories. The phrase “I Like Ike” appeared in TV ads and campaign buttons and became “one of the most memorable campaign slogans in American history,” according to the National Museum of American History. The recently renovated Eisenhower Library tells the story of a leader who presided over unparalleled U.S. prosperity but also dealt with what was widely perceived as a strong Communist threat here and abroad. The museum complex includes Eisenhower’s boyhood home.

Don’t miss: Eisenhower was a painter after he left office, one of the hidden talents of U.S. presidents. And because paint-by-numbers kits were popular during the Eisenhower administration, Ike’s appointment secretary would give out kits to Oval Office visitors. One charming exhibit showcases paint-by-numbers works by people like J. Edgar Hoover and Nelson Rockefeller.

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George Hw Bush Museum
via Bush41.org

George H.W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum

College Station, Texas

Located on the campus of Texas A&M University, the George H.W. Bush Library tells the event-filled story of the former oilman, CIA director, vice president (to Ronald Reagan) and 41st president of the United States (1989 to 1993). Bush is known for launching the 43-day-long Persian Gulf War, in which a coalition of 35 nations responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The museum encourages civic literacy through a ton of historical artifacts, film, photographs, documents, music, sound effects and interactive videos. In 2007, when the museum re-opened after a renovation, the then-83-year-old former president celebrated by parachuting into the festivities from an airplane.

Don’t miss: The Berlin Wall/Age of Freedom exhibit, where visitors can get a look at a 12-foot-tall slab of the Berlin Wall, which was pulled down during Bush’s presidency, marking the end of an era of oppressive Communism. In the Crisis Management exhibit, a replica of the White House’s Situation Room provides an interactive learning opportunity about the decisions that led to the Persian Gulf War and other international crises.

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automated Lbj at the presidential library and Museum
via Lbjlibrary.org

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library

Austin, Texas

Lyndon B. Johnson became president in 1963, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. During his tenure, he passed sweeping “Great Society” legislation that vastly increased the safety net in the U.S., including the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. However, “his presidency was overwhelmed by opposition to his war in Vietnam,” writes the White House Historical Association. The LBJ library is a 10-story limestone tower situated on the campus of the University of Texas. Exhibits explore LBJ’s vice presidency, the assassination of Kennedy, the Civil Rights Movement, space travel and more. You can listen to important phone calls LBJ made to Jackie Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and others.

Don’t miss: An animatronic LBJ uses real audio to recount the president’s favorite stories. “In a slow Texas drawl, he could tell a captivating tale about anything, including jokes about himself. This exhibition focuses on that earthy, rough-and-tumble sense of humor,” notes the library. You can also take a picture of yourself in the “Johnson Treatment” photo booth, which features an overbearing image of Johnson, who often got his way by leaning into the space of politicians and others, intimidating and convincing them at the same time.

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Ghost at Abraham Lincoln Museum And Library
via Presidentlincoln.illinois.gov

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Springfield, Illinois

One of the most consequential presidents in American history, Abraham Lincoln served as president from 1861 to 1865 and died well before the National Archives established presidential libraries. In 2004, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency remedied that absence by opening the Lincoln Library, which houses millions of documents, photographs and artifacts about Lincoln and the Civil War. While this presidential destination is not operated by the National Archives, it is a major tourist destination. The museum is filled with interactive displays and life-size dioramas that recreate Lincoln’s boyhood log-cabin home, the Blue Room in the White House, Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theater where he was fatally shot and Representatives Hall in Springfield’s Old State Capitol, where his casket lay in state.

Don’t miss: The Campaign of 1860 exhibit, a modern-style TV broadcast, features the late Tim Russert of Meet the Press updating viewers on the progress of Lincoln’s complicated, but successful, presidential campaign. Another production called “Ghosts of the Library” projects images of 19th-century figures onto steam shooting from the floor. The goal of the performance is to answer the question “Why save all this old stuff?” A “ghost” historian helps the audience learn how finding new artifacts can change the narrative of history.

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The 37th president Richard Nixon greets Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in a 1972 visit to the People's Republic of China. The life-size, bronze-like replica is on prominent display in the newly renovation Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum, Yorba Linda.
Greg Doherty/Getty Images

Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

Yorba Linda, California

The only American president to resign from office, Richard Nixon steered the nation during the tumultuous years of 1969 to 1974. At his presidential library, more than 70 exhibits capture the flash points of the era, including the Vietnam War, Communism, the Cold War and the Watergate scandal. An exhibit titled “The Week That Changed the World” allows you to relive the first-ever visit by an American president to the People’s Republic of China, a trip that dramatically altered the relationship between the two countries. At the interactive station called “Tough Choices,” guests play the role of an unnamed advisor to President Nixon, who “advises” him on a course of action for three important decisions: bombing Cambodia, aiding Israel during the Yom Kippur War and implementing an all-volunteer military.

Don’t miss: Visitors can check out Army One, the helicopter used by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford. President Nixon took more than 180 trips on this aircraft. Walk through the Pat Nixon Gardens, the final resting place of Richard and Pat Nixon and home to Nixon’s childhood house. The gardens contain more than 80 types of roses as well as a California pepper tree planted by Nixon’s father, Frank, in 1912.

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A man looks at exhibits at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library December 28, 2006 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum

Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, Michigan

President Ford, who served from 1974 to 1977, split his legacy into two locations, both of which are hidden gems in Michigan. The Gerald Ford Library is on the Ann Arbor campus of his alma mater, the University of Michigan (where he was a football star) and contains 25 million pages of memos, letters, meeting notes, reports and other historical documents, as well as 500,000 audiovisual items, documenting Ford’s post-Watergate term. At the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, his former Congressional district, visitors can peruse some 20,000 artifacts from the president’s life and career, as well as step inside life-size replicas of the Oval Office and Cabinet Room.

Don’t miss: The “Gerald Ford: A Sporting Life” exhibit at the library focuses on Ford’s athletic life and his way of using sports to connect with important figures. At the museum, there’s an extensive exhibit on Watergate, and along with various presentations, you can see the actual tools used in the burglary.

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Clinton Presidential Library Documents Life Of A President
Scott Olson/Getty Images

William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum

Little Rock, Arkansas

Known as “the Big Dog” because of his warm and outgoing personality, Bill Clinton presided over the United States from 1993 to 2001. The “big” moniker could also be used to describe Clinton’s award-winning, glass-paneled, LEED-certified presidential center, which sits on the Arkansas River and is the most expensive site of its kind to date. Clinton read up on architecture while he was still in office and was intimately involved in the center’s creation. The library reportedly houses the largest collection of archival material of any of the presidential libraries.

Don’t miss: An armored Cadillac limousine, one of three used during Clinton’s presidency, lives at the Clinton Presidential Library. And because the White House was the Clintons’ only home during his two terms in office (a first family rule), Bill and Hillary found ways to personalize it and make it theirs. The “Life at the White House” exhibit shows their favorite spots and how they surrounded themselves with items that held special meaning for them.

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Steel beams from the World Trade Center are dispalyed in the September 11 terrorist attacks portion of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University on April 24, 2013 in Dallas, Texas.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Dallas, Texas

Located on the campus of Southern Methodist University (Laura Bush’s alma mater), the George W. Bush Library covers his life and presidential terms (2001 to 2009). In the interactive Decision Points theater, you are presented with advice from presidential advisors on four issues Bush encountered: the Iraq invasion, the Iraq troop surge, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial crisis. You choose your response, then listen to Bush explain the decisions he made. The library and museum contain 70 million pieces of paper and 80 terabytes of electronic data.

Don’t miss: At the museum, visitors are encouraged to touch the vertical 16.7-foot, 1.85-ton piece of rusted and mangled steel from the World Trade Center structure that was struck directly by one of the hijacked planes on 9/11. In the Artifacts Gallery, about 43,000 artifacts, mainly domestic and foreign gifts given to George and Laura Bush, are on display. Look for the bullhorn that Bush used when speaking on top of a pile of rubble at ground zero.

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Obama Library building mockup
via obama.org

Barack Obama Presidential Center

Online only

President Barack Obama made history as the country’s first African American chief executive. And while the 44th president’s library is the first fully digital library, the Obama Foundation is constructing the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side in Jackson Park. The center will be a privately operated, non-federal organization, but the National Archives will loan a substantial number of records and artifacts for display at the library and museum, which is slated for a 2025 opening. Online, you can view extensive information, photos and videos of President Obama (whose Secret Service code name was Renegade), former First Lady Michelle, their daughters and their dogs (Bo and Sunny) during his presidency, from 2009 to 2017.

Don’t miss: The Sky Room on the rooftop of the museum (designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien) will offer panoramic views of Lake Michigan to the east, Chicago’s skyscrapers to the north and the South Side of Chicago to the west and south. A new branch of the Chicago Public Library will also exist within the presidential center, with a rooftop garden, similar to the garden Michelle Obama planted at the White House and available for young people to learn about growing fruits and vegetables.

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President Trump Signs An Armed Forces Day Proclamation And Participates In U.S. Space Force Flag Presentation
Pool/Getty Images

Donald J. Trump Presidential Library

Online only

On January 21, 2021, following the departure of the 45th president (2017 to 2021) from office, the National Archives launched the Donald J. Trump Presidential website, which stores all records from his tenure. So far, there have been no publicized plans for a physical building to house the library or a museum.

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