History from Home

By Stacey Flores Chandler and Abigail Malangone, Reference Archivists

JFKWHP-KN-C17617. View of Aspen Lodge, the Presidential residence at Camp David in Frederick County, Maryland.

The staff at the JFK Library have been working from home for over a month now, and though our doors are closed, staff across all departments are still committed to serving the public! In the Reference Department, archivists continue to answer your questions via email and our online request form, and we’re working on new ways to make our materials more accessible. Now that even more researchers and history nerds are turning to online resources for research (or for fun!), we’re here to help you find plenty of interesting and useful things from home.

Digitized Collections

JFKWHP-KN-C18462. President John F. Kennedy leans over his desk to view an original letter written by former President John Adams to President James Madison.

So far, we’ve digitized almost 600,000 pages and over 20,000 photographs, including some of our most-requested materials. You don’t have to be a professional academic to find something interesting in our most popular collections, which include:

  • The President’s Office Files: a collection of papers used by the President and kept right outside the Oval Office for his reference, including communications with other world leaders and files on important issues like civil rights
  • The John F. Kennedy Personal Papers: documenting JFK’s private life, including his childhood report cards, book drafts, letters to family and friends, medical records, and even his own collection of historical documents
  • White House Photographs: public domain images created by the three White House photographers who followed JFK through each day of his Presidency. 

You can follow the links to each collection’s finding aid, which is a tool that’s designed to help you hone in on the boxes and folders you’re most interested in. As you scroll through or use a “ctrl+f” keyword search, you’ll notice that the folder titles appear as links; just click on any link to access all the documents or photographs in that folder.

Oral Histories

JFKWHP-ST-A1-1-61. President John F. Kennedy is interviewed by Alexei Adzhubei, editor of the newspaper Izvestiya and son-in-law of Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Oral history interviews offer unique takes on history, because interviewees often opened up about things they might not have written on paper or captured in a photograph. The Library’s two major oral history collections include over 1,600 interviews of people associated with John F. Kennedy and/or Robert F. Kennedy, and most of them are transcribed and available on our website.

The Library’s archives hold roughly 24 million pages of paper, so you might wonder what these interviews can add to our collections. But while we do have paper records about JFK’s and RFK’s early school days, the interviews of childhood friends Lem Billings and Dave Hackett hold personal memories about these years that can’t be found anywhere else. Similarly, you can read memos or view photographs documenting the administration’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis – and then learn what it was like to be part of it with the oral history of Liz Kovacs, the daughter of an American serviceman living on the Naval base in Guantanamo during the crisis.

The oral history collections also offer the chance to join icons like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall or Congressman John Lewis as they reflect on their lives, careers, and thoughts on the Kennedy administration. And if you’re looking for something light-hearted, we’ve got that too: head this way to learn what White House Florists Elmer Young and Nelson James thought JFK’s favorite flower might be, or reminisce about the antics of the Kennedy family dogs with the unofficial White House “dog wrangler,” Traphes Bryant. There’s a lot to explore within these collections!

Goodreads

JFKWHP-KN-C22400. Social Secretary to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Letitia Baldrige, receives an illuminated manuscript of the Virgin of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

If you’re looking for some recommendations for your next read, check out our Goodreads page. You can browse archivist-curated bookshelves to discover books about John F. Kennedy, the Kennedy family, or topics that are covered in our archival collections. There is even a shelf for the books President Kennedy listed as his favorites! Whether you’re a history buff or a professor working on your next project, we think there’s something here for everyone (and as Reference Archivists, we use these titles ourselves when we answer your questions)!

Speeches

JFKWHP-KN-C18704. Press and audience members watch as President John F. Kennedy speaks at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the first state Workmen’s Compensation Law on the South Lawn driveway at the White House.

JFK quotations still generate a lot of interest, and if you’re looking to browse his speeches – starting with one of the earliest in 1942 – you can check out transcriptions created from archival documents in our holdings on our website. But for specific quotes, some of the most common requests in our inbox contain the question: “Did JFK actually say this?” When people come across quotes online or hear them in television shows and movies, they often ask us to verify the quote or provide some context. We are always happy to try to track these down for you — we’ve even written a blog post that investigates one of the most viral quotes — but we also want to let you in on some of the tools we use to research those questions. 

For a quote we don’t immediately recognize, the first stop is usually the American Presidency Project (APP). The APP is a database maintained by the University of California at Santa Barbara that makes it easy to search across all of the public statements any President made during their Presidency — including press releases, executive orders, news conferences, and written statements, among others. If you don’t have luck there, historical newspaper databases are a great online resource, and they’re often accessible with help from your local public librarian.

Once you have some identifying information for the quote you’re after (date, location, etc.), you can hop over to the Speeches series in the President’s Office Files collection from the archives. In addition to the text of the speech, these files often hold background information, drafts, and sometimes even the President’s annotated copy of the speech.  If you’ve been staring at screens all day and want to give yours eyes a rest, another option is to listen to Kennedy’s speeches and public remarks in our White House Audio Collection. You can even download any of these speeches for free!

We hope some of this information will help you to further your research or just help you learn something new. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or need some help along the way — that’s why we’re here…and we’re still here!

JFKWHP-ST-22-1-61. President John F. Kennedy poses with his staff in the Oval Office.

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