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How Access to Documents at Texas Presidential Libraries Is Changing

Veronica Zaragovia, KUT
This in-person view of the stacks at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library will only be seen by groups that get clearance from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.

Texas has more presidential libraries than any other state. And they’re going through changes with regard to accessing classified documents.

On the 10th floor of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, the sound of archivists pushing wooden book trucks on the bright red carpet is a familiar one.

"We have a reading room where researches come to do the research, and we bring up the boxes that they need," Senior Archivist Regina Greenwall says. She's the team leader of the library's foreign policy staff. "And they work on them in the reading room under supervision. The stacks are where we keep things not in use or that have not already gone through the process of being opened."

Until recently, the public could see the stacks on an organized group tour. Presidential library directors could make the decision to allow the tour.

But now, all tours have to be cleared with a top employee of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.

The change comes after a series of high profile thefts. In 2011, a former National Archives employee, Leslie Waffen, admitted to stealing nearly 1,000 federal items. That same year, federal officials found thousands of federal documents in the home of Barry Landau, who posed as a researcher.

Meanwhile, as some libraries deal with restrictions, one new presidential library is opening its documents up.

"On Jan. 20, 2014, the general public can start filing Freedom of Information requests at the George W. Bush Presidential Library," Brooke Clement says. She's one of the supervisory archivists at that library in Dallas.

"Once an individual makes a freedom of information request here, we would then locate those responsive records here at the library and then do line by line review of those records. If there’s any presidential act restriction that needs to be made on the record or exemption made on the record, we’d withhold that information," Clement says.

Then the incumbent president is notified as is the former president’s representatives about the material proposed to open.

"Then we'll make the open material available to the requester," she adds.

The change is because the Bush administration ended five years ago, the set time period before presidential papers can be requested as directed by the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

But some records will stay classified for decades. Regina Greenwell of the LBJ Library says some documents from 50 years ago are still restricted.

"They are records that deal with some highly sensitive areas," Greenwell says. "Two that come to mind as the most sensitive are anything dealing with weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons, atomic bombs, things like that."

Other documents that remain classified involve sources and methods of collecting intelligence. 

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