Based about ten miles north east of Atlanta, Georgia, the Jimmy Carter library houses twenty-seven million pages of materials relating to the Carter presidency.The library is one of three interconnected buildings located on site, the other two are the museum and the Carter Center, a not-for-profit human rights organisation run by the president. A colleague remarked that the clustered together site, from above, rather aptly resembles a peanut.
The library and museum is ten miles from the city of Atlanta, and fifteen from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. A taxi is steep but an uber is about half the price. Alternatively, if you are travelling from the city, you can catch the MARTA using the blue line and getting off at Inman Park/Reynoldstown. The site is a twenty-minute walk from the station but a relatively simple one. Alternatively, there is a bus from the Five Points station in the centre of Atlanta. If you are driving, there is free parking on site for visitors.
The very first archival visit I ever made was when I was an MA student and I travelled to the Carter library in 2013. Previously my visits to presidential libraries had been as a tourist, not a researcher. Needless to say it was a daunting experience however the staff at the library are incredibly friendly and welcoming. When I first visited the library, the finding aids were not available online. Since then however, some of the key finding aids have been published on the Carter library website, which is immensely helpful pre-visit. It should be noted that the staff are very responsive to email questions and can provide guidance before you embark on your research. I would highly recommend getting in touch beforehand as the archivists there can provide some insight into your topic and provide advice. Registration takes place on arrival at the library and it’s a simple and easy process. You are issued with a researcher’s card that is valid for two years. The research room is where you will do your work. It is a small room with about fifteen desks or so. Whenever I have visited, the room has never been full however the staff have said such a scenario has occurred before. Quite what happens then, I’m not quite sure but it may be worth checking when the best times are to visit. I’ve also noted by checking their twitter feed, that inclement weather can force the library to close on some days.
Requesting materials at the library is simple however on the first visit, it looks more complicated then what it actually is. As ever, the archivist on hand can provide guidance and as you make more requests, it becomes second nature. The pull time is quick, perhaps no longer then ten to fifteen minutes which is ideal. Too pass the time, there are books relating to the Carter presidency on hand. Alternatively, you can also utilise the RAC project on the computers. The Carter library has done a sterling job in digitising many of their materials and they are available via the computers provided. Search by keywords, collections etc. and the programme will filter the results for you. If you are more comfortable with digital research, then this is ideal for you. They have also reproduced some digitised materials on their website.
The library contains a wealth of material relating to the Carter administration and prior to visiting it would be worth going through the online finding aids and planning what you intend to request. Of particular interest to myself over the years have been the donated material of former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and the National Security Advisor files that related primarily to the administration’s foreign policy. Both collections contain huge masses of papers and information that shed considerable light on the various events that took place during the Carter presidency. A significant number of the NSA files are unfortunately still classified but the available material is a must see for foreign policy aficionados. Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan also donated papers that contain documents relating to foreign affairs, as do the papers of Vice-President Walter Mondale.
Within the domestic policy files, the donated materials of Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan and Press Secretary Jody Powell are invaluable as are the cabinet secretary materials and domestic policy staff files. If you research is more focused on Carter, then there are personal files that are worthwhile exploring. The Carter family papers provides a huge catalogue of materials relating to the president’s family. The Plains Files, the pre-presidential files and the papers of Susan Clough, Carter’s personal secretary may also be informative.
You can also do research by email, this is useful avenue if making the trip to Atlanta is perhaps too costly. For example, I requested materials this summer because the cost of reproductions outweighed my travel and accommodation costs. The drawback of course is that, unless you have viewed the material previously, you may have no way of knowing before you pay that the items you requested are useful to your research. Also, while the $0.75 charge per page (minimum $15.00 order) is reasonable, it will build up fairly quickly if you are requesting multiple files/boxes etc. It must be said however the staff were ridiculously quick in providing me with the materials once I had requested and paid. They also offer you the opportunity to have them emailed or posted at no extra charge. All in all, it is a great service!
A trip to the library would not be complete without a visit to the museum. Previously, I have visited the Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., Kennedy and Johnson presidential libraries and museums and Carter’s certainly matches them for charm and appeal. An on-site cafeteria provides lunch and refreshments to all. With your research card you can get a discount on your lunch, although given that I am ravenous after working all morning, I have never checked to see how much it amounts too.
It is worth noting that the library runs a series of events on an evening time with a variety of speakers. When I first visited in 2013, the New Yorker reporter George Packer delivered a talk and a book signing. The library facebook page advertises the guests speaking which have included in the past, Salmon Rushdie, Andrew Young and Carter himself, albeit at short notice. If you do not have plans on an evening, it would be well worth checking out.
Where to stay?
Given that Atlanta is a huge city, there are plenty of hotels to stay at but inevitably pricey. On my previous two visits, I rented a room using Airbnb in Inman Park which is a five-minute walk from the library. It is a quaint location, with bars, restaurants and a food market close by. During my first visit, I stayed at the Highland Inn which is half a mile from the library but I preferred the homely element that the Airbnb places provided.
What to do?
Atlanta is the ninth largest metropolitan area in the United States, so there is plenty to do. In between the library and the city is the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr as well as a museum dedicated to the civil rights leader. The resting site of King and his wife Coretta is located on the site of the King Center. In the centre of the city is the Centennial Olympic Park surrounded by the Coca Cola Museum, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Georgia Aquarium, the CNN Center and the Phillips Arena, all in close walking distance. During my longest visit in September 2015, I headed north to Midtown and visited the home of Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell. As a lover of the 1930s classic film starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, the visit to the house was a must. The tour of the house was well worth the admission and was a truly fascinating experience which covers the history of the house and of Mitchell’s life (key events surrounded the area in which the house is located) as well as the development of the novel. The museum contains some numerous artefacts from Mitchell’s life as well as the film that have been donated.