October 19, 2003
First Ladies Library officials open resources, museum to more people
By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON — At a key juncture in its existence, the National First Ladies Library in Canton says it intends to open its archives to anyone who is interested. Also planned are regular visiting hours for the collection, which is the first to celebrate the historic roles played by presidents’ wives.
In the past, library founder and president Mary Regula, the wife of U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, promoted the privately owned collection as a resource for scholars and schoolchildren. Yet it was unclear how available it would be to others.
“The library is going to be open to basically anyone who has an interest in studying the first ladies,” said Pat Krider, executive director of the library. “So it’s not something that is limited to scholars or authors.”
Limits on public access to the library came under fire from area residents last August, after commemorative outdoor tiles bearing the names of civic contributors were pulled up and destroyed during renovation of the library’s recently dedicated Education and Research Center.
Library officials said the tiles were a safety hazard when it rained. Critics accused the library of arrogance and contempt for the public.
The research center is now home to the collection, which numbers more than 3,000 books written by or about first ladies, and thousands of letters, artifacts and other items. The seven-story, 20,000-square-foot structure, a former bank building, cost $7.5 million to renovate and furnish. About half the money came from federal, state and local grants, and the rest was private.
The National Park Service and the National First Ladies Library Inc., a private, nonprofit corporation whose founding chair and president is Mrs. Regula, are joint operators of the first ladies site.
About a week after the Sept. 4 dedication, the library made it easier to see the historic Saxton McKinley house, which serves as the first ladies museum.
Dropping the previous requirement to make an appointment to tour the house, officials also increased the number of tours from 20 to 30 a week, Tuesday through Saturday. Only in October are tours offered on Sundays.
Growing public demand led to expanded access to Saxton House, where William McKinley and his wife, Ida Saxton McKinley, lived before he became president.
“A lot of people who called in said we think we are going to be in the area but it’s difficult to make a reservation,” Krider said. Reservations are still encouraged, since tours are limited to 15 people.
As for the collection itself, the educational mission of the enterprise led to the decision to make it available to the widest audience, Krider said.
“Our whole purpose is educating the public about these important contributions of first ladies, and it’s not the Carl Anthonys who need that education the most,” she said, referring to a prominent historian who is considered the leading expert on first ladies. “It’s the everyday person who needs that education.”
Until last month, not even scholars had access to the archives, which were stored in two locations and were being cataloged.
The archives are now open by appointment.
The first visitors were a couple from Illinois who were interested in Mary Todd Lincoln, Krider said. In a way, the widow of Abraham Lincoln inspired creation of the library, which began as a venture to develop a bibliography of first ladies materials in 1995. Mrs. Regula was personally interested in Mrs. Lincoln, and she felt the contributions of first ladies had received insufficient attention.
In crafting its public access policy, the library board considered the presidential archives as well as local expectations and staffing.
“There’s a great amount of variability” in access to presidential libraries, which range from entirely private to public-private hybrids, said Lynn Scott Cochrane, who is writing a book on the subject.
“In some libraries, anybody can walk into the archives room, and in others, they need to speak with an archivist and say why” they want to see the collection, said Cochrane, who has a doctorate in public administration and serves as director of libraries at Denison University.
Some of the most open policies are found at the 10 presidential libraries under the direction of the National Archives and Records Administration. Displaying the papers of most former presidents since Herbert Hoover, they are public-private partnerships that were built with donations and operate with public funds.
The libraries are open Monday to Friday, and anyone can view the collections after filling out an application.
The first ladies library also is a partnership. The nonprofit corporation, formed in 1997, raised private money to restore the Saxton House, renovate the research center and finance the growing collection.
In 1998, it moved into the Saxton House, which was already owned by the park service.
Ralph Regula introduced legislation that made the library a national historic site and unit of the park service on Oct. 11, 2000. This prestigious designation brought the library within the park service budget while triggering a public access requirement.
Federal appropriations of $600,000 in 2000 and 2001 and $700,000 this year paid for library operations, which Krider estimated at $1 million a year. She did not provide a copy of the financial audit in time for publication of this story. The library has five full-time and half a dozen part-time staff.
In accord with federal rules, the park service is preparing a general management plan for the library. A draft of the plan will be released for public review next spring, said Carol Spears, the park service’s part-time site manager for the library.
“We’ll be looking at public comments and incorporating those with our team review in the summer of 2004,” she said, soliciting the public to comment.
“We’d prefer to have it sooner rather than later,” Spears said. “We feel we can put together a better document that way.” Spears can be reached at (440) 974-2993 or by e-mail at