New details on little-known Obama Presidential Library, tucked away in Hoffman Estates

U.S. Archivist Colleen Shogan, whose National Archives and Records Administration operates Presidential libraries, talks about the library in an exclusive Sun-Times interview.

By  Lynn Sweet

Updated Aug 25, 2023, 8:54pm CDT

WASHINGTON — When Colleen Shogan, the new archivist of the United States, pulled up in front of the Obama Presidential Library in Hoffman Estates for the first time, “I thought it looked like a wedding center.”

The gray brick exterior of 2500 Golf Rd. in the northwest suburb, once a Plunkett Furniture showroom and warehouse, has decorative front and side portico entrances. But there’s no grand architectural detail or even a sign to suggest that inside, for the past seven years, it’s been the temporary home of the official Barack Obama Presidential Library.

Shogan oversees the National Archives and Records Administration, which operates the federal presidential library system.

Under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, NARA gets custody of all presidential records and artifacts when a president leaves office.

Inside the fortified and climate-controlled incognito Obama library on Shogan’s visit in July, 23 staffers — mostly archivists and technicians — were digitizing, cataloging, photographing and preserving records and artifacts from Obama’s two terms.

That’s about 25 million unclassified paper documents, by NARA’s estimate, and 35,000 physical artifacts, including gifts given to the Obamas.

Blue-gloved conservators pulled artifacts for her to see including:

  • Obama’s silver BlackBerry.
  • The draft of Obama’s first inaugural speech he wrote on a white, lined paper pad.
  • A signed Pittsburgh Steelers football.
  • A jeweled sword — a gift from Saudi Arabia.
  • A Michelle Obama dress.

Shogan also saw boxes labeled Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett — among other staffers — holding White House materials. Emanuel, the former mayor who’s now U.S. ambassador to Japan, was Obama’s first chief of staff. Jarrett was a top adviser for both Obama terms and now heads the Obama Foundation.

Shogan peeked through a crate bearing papier-mache replicas of the popular Obama dogs Sunny and Bo, once part of a 2016 Christmas display in the East Wing of the White House.

The Obama library is the 14th NARA presidential library and first to be virtual. Once the processing work in Hoffman Estates is done, the Obama library won’t exist as a permanent, stand-alone building.

The Obama Presidential Center, on the other hand, now under construction in Jackson Park, is owned and operated by the Obama Presidential Foundation and will have a museum and other structures — but no official NARA-run presidential library.

Shogan, the 11th archivist of the United States and first woman in the post, was sworn in May 17 and has been making the rounds of NARA facilities.

She talked about the library in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times at the National Archives Building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Her agency has been in a spotlight because of the case against former President Donald Trump, who’s charged with obstructing the federal investigation into his possession of classified documents that should have been turned over to NARA.

For the Obama library in Hoffman Estates, “The plan is to digitalize the documents and then be able to pack up and move them to a permanent NARA facility and then work on the digital construction of the library,” Shogan said.

The Hoffman Estates lease expires in 2025.

The 73,573-square-foot building is for sale. The online listing says $5 million was spent in 2016 to meet the standards set by the federal General Services Administration “for high security and efficiency.”

The papers and artifacts, once digitized and photographed, will go into storage at NARA facilities.

“We are not throwing away the originals,” Shogan said. “They will be kept in a secure facility. They will be kept in a way that will preserve the life of the media in which they are appearing, whether film or paper or artifacts.”

Very high-quality photographs are taken of the artifacts before they are put in storage. Those photos eventually will be posted online.

When she visited the Obama library, Shogan also saw the high-speed Raptor scanner purchased in June for $75,000 that’s used to digitize paper records.

That day in July, staffers were “digitalizing the [non-classified] briefing book that Obama got every day,” Shogan said. “At some point in time, we will have those briefing books online.”

In the virtual Obama library, Shogan said researchers will be able to get assistance from NARA staff archivists and librarians via video chat.

Several years ago, NARA transferred Obama’s classified records — about 12 million paper pages and 3.2 digital terabytes — from Hoffman Estates to a NARA building in College Park, Md.

“If anybody is touching those documents, they’re going to have the appropriate (security) clearance,” Shogan said.

The Obama Presidential Library in Hoffman Estates is closed to the public.

Why no library at Obama center

After Obama left office on Jan. 20, 2017, the records and artifacts, which are NARA’s property under the Presidential Records Act, were hauled to the Hoffman Estates building. The General Services Administration leased a structure for NARA near Chicago because NARA expected the permanent Obama library to be located in the Obama center.

In May 2017, Obama’s team made the surprise announcement that there would be no NARA federal presidential library at the center.

Not including an official NARA-run presidential library in the Obama Presidential Center saves the Obama Presidential Foundation, which is raising the money for the center, tens of millions of dollars.

NARA presidential library buildings are privately funded, and the agency mandates an endowment equal to 60% of construction costs of the library. NARA also has expensive design, security and structural requirements to meet its standards to store archival materials in perpetuity.

The city of Chicago so far has required only a $1 million endowment for the entire Obama campus — a museum tower, three other buildings, a garage and open space. In 2021, the latest estimates available, the Obama Foundation put the price of the complex — without a presidential library — at $700 million.

Having an official presidential library was a selling point when city officials were asked to give up 19.3 acres in historic Jackson Park for the Obama campus. Instead, the Obama complex will include one building to house a Chicago Public Library branch.

The Obama virtual library model raises the question of whether future presidents will want brick-and-mortar libraries since so many documents are born digital.

During Obama’s eight years, 1.5 billion pages, including 300 million emails, more than three million digital photos and other PDFs and tweets were never on paper, according to NARA, which estimates that 90% of Obama’s records were digitally created.

The Obama Presidential Foundation agreed to pay the costs to digitize the Obama records.

NARA and the Obama Foundation

Shogan also toured the construction site of the Obama center, which is projected to open in late 2025.

The museum tower, its signature structure, can be seen going up on the east side of Stony Island Avenue.

Shogan also met with two Obama Foundation executive vice presidents, Alfreda Bradley-Coar and Tina Tchen, a former White House chief of staff to Michelle Obama.

There could be a NARA archivist at the public library branch to help students and others do online research. And NARA education specialists might at times work with the foundation on events at the Obama center.

The Obama library has never had a director. Shogan said she will hire a director, based in Chicago, with a core NARA team. Discussions are underway about housing the Chicago NARA Obama team at the Obama Center.

By the way, the Obamas have never been to the Hoffman Estates facility.

Obama items to go out on loan

Shogan anticipates high demand from around the world for Obama artifacts to display. About 100 objects have been earmarked for loans to the museum at the Obama center.

“Our archivists will know the collection better than anyone else because they will have photographed it, and they will have catalogued it and inventoried it,” Shogan said.

The Obama museum won’t always have first dibs on all artifacts, which are NARA property.

“A lot of museums across the world are going to want to have those artifacts in their exhibits, not just the Obama Presidential Center,” Shogan said. “So there will have to be, you know, a juggling of what artifact is going where and an openness and a transparency and collaboration with the Obama Foundation so that we are able to make sure they have the objects that they want for their exhibits to make that the best museum possible.”

Shogan said Michelle Obama dresses will be popular “and probably a lot of the dog stuff, too.”

Presidential libraries “are, yes, about that president, about that first family,” Shogan said. “But it’s also, in the case of Obama, eight years of our history . . . a lens into a particular moment in time of American history.”

Obama virtual library:

The 14th NARA presidential library is up and running, with materials posted as available. Obama’s presidential records became subject to Freedom of Information Act requests on Jan. 20, 2022, and the files that have been released are online.

Trump virtual library:

The Trump administration classified and unclassified records and artifacts are in NARA’s College Park facility. Fourteen Trump library staffers work at NARA’s 15th presidential library.

Obama’s ‘courtesy’ Senate records storage

NARA also is storing Obama’s U.S. Senate records as a “courtesy” but is not the legal owner of the documents. Shogan said she reminded the Obama foundation team in Chicago “we have them in courtesy storage … and they may want to put them someplace else.”