Late-show hosts greeted the November 2004 opening of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., with jokes and jeers. "It rained on Bill Clinton's parade yesterday, which is kind of a switch; usually Hillary does that," said Jay Leno of the library, which is adjacent to the University of Arkansas public affairs school. And David Letterman joked that President George W. Bush was excited to visit, "because he'd never been to a library before."
Letterman's joke highlights part of the ambiguity surrounding presidential libraries, which essentially function more like museums and archives and less like lending libraries where card holders can check out books. The 13 presidential libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Administration advertise collections with tens of millions of pages, thousands of artifacts, and deep photography reserves. But students and recent graduates are divided on the degree to which having a presidential library on campus directly benefits them.
When the George W. Bush Presidential Center opens at Southern Methodist University in 2013, it will benefit both undergraduate and graduate students by bringing speakers, scholars, and programs to campus, says Jake Torres, a Teach for America instructor at W. W. Samuell High School in Dallas and a former SMU student body president.
"If I were trying to decide which university to attend, I would want a university that offered the widest range of programs and experiences," he says. "Having a presidential library on campus separates an institution from other schools."
Interning at the Carter Presidential Center—which includes the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum and The Carter Center—as a student at Emory University helped Asanka Pathiraja develop his writing skills and analytical abilities.
"Typically, students interested in economics, history, and political science have the most to gain. That said, the resources provided by and gravitas attached to a presidential library on campus is in my opinion worth consideration by students interested in other academic subjects," says Pathiraja, a member of the J.D. class of 2012 at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill School of Law.
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At Texas A&M University—College Station, which is home to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, some Aggies say that having a presidential library on campus means they may see its namesake, President George H. W. Bush, and his wife Barbara, who have an apartment behind the library.
"They're always here—like all the time," says Texas A&M junior Aleyda Cantú Muñoz of the former president and first lady. "Their presence here at A&M is such a privilege."
The elder Bush, often referred to as Bush 41 in reference to his role as the 41st U.S. president to differentiate him from his son, who was the nation's 43rd president, has also been seen riding his scooter through the halls of the Bush School of Government and Public Service. And when students present analyses of Bush 41's presidency, they often find him in attendance, says Andrew Card, acting dean of the school and a former deputy chief of staff to Bush 41 and chief of staff to Bush 43.
Bush 41 is on campus at least every other week between mid-October and the beginning of May, according to Card. "It's a great gift to the students, faculty, and community, because he tries to be pretty visible when he does come," he says.
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But when applicants visit campuses with presidential libraries—some of which include Marist College (Franklin D. Roosevelt), University of Massachusetts—Boston (John F. Kennedy), and University of Texas—Austin (Lyndon B. Johnson)—they may find the libraries are treasure troves hiding in plain sight.
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, for example, is located on the North Campus of University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. "It's sort of isolated," says Yossi Lichterman, a Michigan senior and the editor in chief of The Michigan Daily. "I bet the average student doesn't even know it's there."
Adam Rubenfire, a junior and senior news editor of the Daily, has never seen a poster, flier, or advertisement for the library, which he says is "out of place" among the engineering buildings on the North Campus.
Back on the Texas A&M campus, about 5,000 Aggies and students from nearby Blinn College visited the Bush library and museum in 2011, according to Will King, marketing and communications director at the library. That represented about a 20 percent increase in student foot traffic over 2010, according to the Bryan-College Station Eagle, but 5,000 students is less than one fifth of the nearly 40,000 students at A&M alone.
Cantú, the Aggie junior, says, "You don't have flocks of students going [to the Bush Library] every day." But Mary Grace Joseph, a member of Texas A&M's class of 2012, says it's a popular spot for dates, and her roommate recently got engaged in the gazebo near the pond where Bush 41 fishes.
"Aggies love that the Bush family comes to A&M so often," she says. "We also love that he built his library here. It truly is extraordinary and beautiful!"
But as highly as Joseph speaks of the library, she recommends that applicants weigh factors such as price, academics, and location of a school more heavily. "Presidential libraries are a wonderful perk," she says, "but not a reason to choose a school."
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Clarified on 6/4/12: A previous version of this article was not clear that the presidential library is adjacent to a University of Arkansas school.