A cross-country road trip to U.S. presidential libraries

Presidential libraries highlight the highs and lows of U.S. political history through exhibits, documents, and at least one actual Air Force One airplane

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center

Whether you love them or hate them, each U.S. president has undeniably left a unique legacy behind—including thousands of documents and artifacts. There are currently 15 U.S. presidential libraries overseen by the Office of Presidential Libraries in the National Archives and Records Administration. Each houses and exhibits the papers, outfits, and other ephemera left behind by former presidents (the newest, dedicated to Barack Obama, is the first fully-digital presidential library).

At the dedication of his library in 1971, 36th President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “It is all here: the story of our time with the bark off … This library will show the facts, not just the joy and triumphs, but the sorrow and failures, too.”

Here’s the itinerary every politics and history buff needs to plan a presidential library road trip.

The entrance if the Nixon Presidential Library is located up a series of stairs.

1. Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum

The 37th president has a complicated legacy—and his library houses the documentation to prove it. The Nixon Presidential Materials Collection, located in Nixon’s Southern California hometown, comprises documents (approximately 46 million pages), photographs, and thousands of hours of video and recorded conversations known as the “White House Tapes.”

2. Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library

With its mountaintop location and sweeping ocean and valley views, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley is dedicated to the legacy of the 40th president, sworn into office in 1981. Don’t miss the Air Force One Pavilion, which features multiple presidential transportation exhibits—including Reagan’s actual Air Force One airplane.

3. Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library is located on the grounds of the boyhood home of the 34th president in Abilene, Kansas. On the library’s 22-acre campus, you’ll find a 25,000-square-foot museum, a Place of Meditation, and the six-room house where Ike and his siblings grew up.

Banners hang from the glass-front entrance of the Truman Presidential Library.
Truman Library. | Photo: Flickr/JeromeG111

4. Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

Located in Truman’s hometown of Independence, Missouri, The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Kansas City region. It recently reopened following major renovations. Among its collections, the museum features many of Truman’s personal letters and documents from the 7 million pages he donated to the U.S. government.

5. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum

Herbert Hoover was inaugurated as the 31st president of the United States in 1929, just a few months before the stock market crash that marked the beginning of the Great Depression. His presidential library is located on the grounds of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa, and features exhibits that tell the story of the life and work of the first president born west of the Mississippi River.

6. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum

In 2004, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum absorbed the Illinois State Historical Library, which features exhibits about Illinois history and preserves important state documents in the 8 miles of below-ground stacks. Highlights include an original copy of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln family letters, and Barry and Louise Taper’s prized collection of Lincolniana and assassination materials. The associated museum and Lincoln’s restored home are also located nearby in Springfield.

7. Gerald R. Ford Library

You’ll find the Gerald R. Ford Library at his alma mater’s campus, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the former president was also a visiting professor. The library hosts speakers and events as well as temporary exhibitions throughout the year. The permanent collection features more than 100 rarely-seen artifacts that tell the story of Ford’s life with a focus on his presidency during the Cold War era. Another related stop is the Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, about 130 miles west of Ann Arbor.

A white sign reads "Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum"
FDR Library. | Photo: Flickr/Wally Gobetz

8. Franklin D Roosevelt Library and Museum

FDR believed in the concept of “open government” and thought that the public should have access to both his personal and professional papers. Dedicated in 1941 and located on the Roosevelt family property in Hyde Park, The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum was the first presidential library in the U.S. and the only one to be used by a sitting president.

9. John F Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum

A short drive from downtown Boston, the JFK Library honors the legacy of the 35th president with interactive exhibits and an artifact collection. Designed by renowned architect I. M. Pei—whose other work includes the Louvre Pyramid and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—the building compliments the waterfront location and guides visitors through Kennedy’s political life in chronological order, ending in a light-filled atrium.

The interior of the Jimmy Carter Library is filled with historical furniture.
Jimmy Carter Library. | Photo: Flickr/Wally Gobetz

10. Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library was built in Atlanta, fulfilling the 39th president’s wish to have his library “someplace in Georgia.” Open since 1986, the Jimmy Carter Library continues to add to its collection, which includes 40 million pages, 1 million photographs, and more than 2,000 hours of video.

11. William J. Clinton Presidential Center

This library and museum sits 130 miles northeast of Clinton’s birthplace and houses artifacts and timelines detailing what life was like for the 42nd president. Permanent displays include replicas of both the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, and the presidential limousine, which was custom built by Cadillac in the early 1990s.

12. George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Housed inside of the Bush Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University, the library and museum houses more than 43,000 artifacts from the 43rd president’s two terms. The immense physical and digital archives include thousands of letters received following 9/11, and students can get the full experience in the original White House Situation Room.

A stark white building houses the Lyndon B Johnson Presidential Library.

13. LBJ Presidential Library

The library, located on the University of Texas campus in Austin, houses 45 million pages of historical documents and 5,000 hours of recordings from Lyndon B. Johnson’s political career. The 10-story building, designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft, also contains more than 54,000 artifacts donated by the Johnsons, including furniture from the Oval Office, personal clothing, artwork, and antiques.

14. George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Located on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum tells the story of the 41st president of the United States, who was sworn into office on January 20, 1989. The museum houses educational exhibits, more than 100,000 artifacts, and an archive containing 44 million pages of records. President Bush is buried behind his presidential library, alongside his wife Barbara and daughter Robin.