First stop for Obama library archives? An empty furniture store in the 'burbs

Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement for the Obama Foundation, poses for a portrait at their new headquarters on the South Side on March 18, 2016 in Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak

Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak

Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement for the Obama Foundation, poses for a portrait at their new headquarters on the South Side on March 18, 2016 in Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

WASHINGTON -- Before the doors of President Barack Obama's library open on Chicago's South Side, truckloads of White House archives will be shipped to a former furniture store in the northwest suburbs.

A massive volume of paperwork, electronic data and artifacts will find a temporary home at the old Plunkett Home Furnishings store in Hoffman Estates, Ill. As many as 120 employees will be brought in by the National Archives and Records Administration to sort through the material, which ultimately will be part of the Obama Presidential Center.

The National Archives employees will organize, digitize and preserve the contents of what is sometimes called the "president's attic," said John Laster, who directs the Presidential Materials Division at the agency and has toured the Hoffman Estates site.

The space was leased in February by the General Services Administration. Village officials are expected to consider a special use permit for the project, which has the backing of Mayor Bill McLeod, in July. Work at the location could start as soon as October.

"Hoffman Estates, Ill., having the Obama archives for a few years, how do you calculate the benefit of that?" McLeod said. "It's another mention, it's another something about Hoffman Estates people read in the newspapers and this is good, having the archives for a few years, that's really good."

Technically, the National Archives doesn't take legal custody of Obama's documents until 12:01 p.m. Jan. 20, 2017, after the next commander in chief takes the oath. But with an OK from the White House, the agency can begin shipping and organizing some materials well before that date, Laster said.

The materials that will wind up in the library are not just from the Oval Office, but from almost every part of the Executive Office of the President. According to Laster, the agency already is providing "courtesy storage" for some of Obama's presidential papers in a location he declined to disclose, though archivists can't yet dig into the boxes of documents. The no-peeking rule does not apply to artifacts such as gifts from foreign leaders or haute couture gowns worn by Michelle Obama that are expected to be part of the collection.

Archivists are bracing for 200 terabytes of electronic records covering Obama's eight years in office. That's a lot -- 10 terabytes was enough to hold the printed collection of the Library of Congress, according to a 2000 study by the University of California, Berkeley.

The old Plunkett's store, which was shuttered in 2009 after the housing market crashed, was leased by the government for six years for $11.3 million. The nearly 74,000 square feet of space will not be open to the public, so people will have to wait until Obama's Presidential Center opens to lay eyes on the lode of documents and artifacts.

The center is scheduled to open in 2021, though Freedom of Information Act requests for records won't be accepted until the following year, five years after Obama's term is up. Some records will be off-limits for seven more years under the law that governs presidential records.

With 13 presidential libraries in its portfolio -- facilities that cost taxpayers nearly $69 million in the year ending last Sept. 30 -- the National Archives is custodian of iconic artifacts past presidents have left to history and the libraries and museums built in their honor.

The collections are an eclectic mix of papers and objects. The George W. Bush Presidential Center possesses the 9 mm Glock pistol Saddam Hussein had when he was captured in 2003. Richard Nixon's library holdings include the one-line letter he sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1974: "I hereby resign the Office of the President of the United States." And in Lyndon Johnson's library is one of the fountain pens he used to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Such holdings trigger speculation about what Obama will put on display from his eight years in office. Will Obama spotlight the Iran nuclear deal? His Nobel Prize? The Supreme Court's decision to make same-sex marriage lawful? Will he downplay his squabbles with Congress? Or his failed pitch to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago?

Time will tell. What is known is that Obama's White House holdings are likely to surpass those amassed by the two previous administrations, in part because of heavy use of social media, Laster said.

Previous presidential collections have also been stored in temporary quarters before making a landing at their final destination. Bush 43's archives, which includes an estimated 200 million emails, 70 million pages of documents, 4 million photos and 43,000 artifacts, were shipped by truck and military-chartered air to a warehouse in Lewisville, Texas, before making the move to the library.

The archives of his father, President George H.W. Bush, found a temporary home in a strip mall space previously occupied by a bowling alley and a Chinese restaurant, Laster said. Bill Clinton's archives landed for a time in a former Oldsmobile dealership near his future library in Little Rock, Ark.

It took eight flights aboard C-5 cargo planes to carry the shrink-wrapped, palletized boxes from the Clinton White House, Laster said. Clinton's materials include about 80 million pages of documents, 1.8 million photos and more than 100,000 artifacts (including about 25,000 books,) Laster said.

When work commences in Hoffman Estates, 40 tractor-trailer trucks are set to drop off Obama White House materials over the first five months, village records show. Ultimately records will be digitized and paper documents placed in acid-free file folders and boxes by current National Archives employees and new hires, Laster said.

McLeod, the suburb's mayor since 2001, is enthusiastic about getting the archives in Hoffman Estates. He first met Obama when the president was an Illinois state senator and eyeing a 2004 run for the U.S. Senate.

Tentatively, the special use permit for the space will be heard July 6 by the Village Planning and Zoning Commission and July 11 by the Village Board, the mayor said.

With less than eight months left in office, Obama has not yet announced the architect who will design his presidential center, nor where it will rise. Sites in Jackson and Washington parks are under consideration. While backers want Obama's presidential center to be an economic force on the South Side, there are critics who complain that the edifices are excessive, wasteful and used by ex-politicos to burnish their image.

Archivists and scholars disagree. Historian Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton, said presidential libraries provide critical insights into Congress and let researchers assess whether journalists got a presidency right and whether the public memory of a president is accurate -- or needs rethinking.

Susan Donius, director of the Office of Presidential Libraries at the National Archives, said libraries run by her agency -- from Herbert Hoover's to Bush 43's -- make it possible for people to study the foundations of democracy without a trip to D.C.

"What I believe is so special is that these 13 institutions provide not only insight into that individual president's administration and time, but also a window into the historical era," she said. "And also they give a wonderful civics education to students and lifelong learners."