This Political Library Gets Everyone’s Vote

Special collection preserves a “primary” tradition

January 3, 2012

Future President John F. Kennedy at a Nashua diner during the 1960 race. Photo: The New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political LIbrary at St. Anselm College
Future President John F. Kennedy at a Nashua diner during the 1960 race. Photo: The New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political LIbrary at St. Anselm College

Reference librarians frequently get scholarly questions that challenge their library’s resources. Take, for instance, “Who finished second to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Democratic New Hampshire primary?” Google can help, but the definitive answer is available at the New Hampshire Political Library in Manchester.

Tough reference questions—from reporters, candidates, and political junkies—are the lifeblood of this nonpartisan nonprofit, founded in 1997 by former New Hampshire Gov. Hugh Gregg and Secretary of State Bill Gardner. Queries usually peak before primary and general presidential elections—the website for the New Hampshire Political Library got more than one million hits before the 2004 election. Of course, that number does not factor in the daily walk-ins from tourists and local voters. “Mostly, adults visit our interpretative center, but anyone can come,” says Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics (NHIP) and the Political Library. (The two separate units merged after financial problems in 2009 forced the layoff of three library employees.)

Library visitors can interact with a permanent exhibit of the historical New Hampshire primary and various temporary exhibits such as this past June’s collection of historic artifacts, letters, and news articles in honor of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s 1960 win in the state’s primary. Levesque says the exhibit also features a note from Jackie Kennedy to Joseph Oliva Huot,  mayor of Laconia, New Hampshire, from 1959 to 1963, after the president’s assassination.

By virtue of its special library status, the Political Library has a narrow mission: to protect and preserve the record of New Hampshire’s tradition of being the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. With this in mind, the library collects everything from paper ballots (from newspapers in the 1800s), lapel stickers, banners, and signatures to a copy of the New Hampshire–born 2004 campaign slogan, “Date (Howard) Dean, Marry (John) Kerry.”

Levesque also leads at least one library tour a week through the library and institute’s shared and spacious 20,000-square-foot accommodations on the Saint Anselm College campus. After the merger in 2011, the library relocated there from its previous site in the Pierce Manse building in Concord, New Hampshire. “I recently spoke to the Lebanese delegation from the State Department,” Levesque says.

Currently solvent—thanks to federal grants and private donations—the library stores 90% of its approximately 30,000-item collection in a temperature-controlled room at the State Library in Concord. Because the artifacts are not fully cataloged—that project is on the digital back burner, budget permitting—when a scholar or author requests something, the archivist must physically retrieve it from its designated location.

Memorabilia unearthed

“There are many thousands of items of memorabilia contributed by New Hampshire activists,” says Levesque, noting they are the most common source of acquisitions. “When key activists pass away, we often get their papers.” Often unearthed from barns, attics, and other inhospitable nooks and crannies (where they are frequently damaged by insects and dampness), donations include handwritten notes, campaign buttons, bumper stickers, and posters. There’s a “Lobsterman for President” poster, sponsored by the Crustacean Liberation Front, and a psychedelic poster from George Romney’s 1968 election. Videos document famous sound bites such as Ronald Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone” campaign quip in Nashua in 1980.

Levesque particularly prizes the library’s 3,000 photographs—a small number are displayed on the library website—which feature such political luminaries as John Foster Dulles, Henry Cabot Lodge, George McGovern, and Mo Udall. Several rare, unpublished shots show Lady Bird Johnson at a 1968 campaign clambake and a 1952 photo of Sen. Robert A. Taft scowling at a live chicken. Even family events, such as campaign visits by Elizabeth Edwards and Joe Lieberman’s ailing mother, become permanent visual records.

The library also archives campaign strategy notes, such as those between former President Bill Clinton and New Hampshire activists. Other artifacts include email printouts from Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid, presidential trading cards, papers from Harold Stassen’s campaign manager, and an academic thesis on the media’s misjudgment of Ed Muskie’s “tearing up” in 1972, which has its counterpart in footage of Hillary Clinton’s exhausted “tearing up” at a New Hampshire restaurant in 2008.

Some acquisitions defy easy classification—collectibles such as Eisenhower golf tees and a pair of “I like Ike” sunglasses, a Jack Kemp football, Sen. Lamar Alexander’s trademark lumberjack shirt, a beer bottle from Maurice Taylor’s 1996 Republican campaign, a George H. W. Bush squeaky toy, and a folk sculpture portraying candidates from the 1996 election in a boxing ring. New items arrive every week, says Levesque, increasing the collection by 5–10% each year. Still, the library director says, more Democratic campaign literature is needed.

Many donations come from lesser-known campaigners—for example, Republican primary candidate Bill Wyatt’s homemade T-shirt; a trading card with the image of real estate broker and Alaskan state legislator Andre Marrou; and the tongue-in-cheek wardrobe of Republican presidential candidate Vermin Supreme (his legal name).

Supreme’s unique reputation is based on his mocking New Hampshire presidential primaries since 1988. In 2007 he donated a portion of his costume accessories to the library. Despite their absurdity, these acquisitions—an emperor suit with flipper-like epaulets, a plastic leopard-print cape, a footlong toothbrush (dental hygiene is part of Supreme’s platform), and a boot worn while filing his candidacy—are historically valuable.

A wry humor insinuates its way into most New Hampshire primaries. For example, political cartoons and illustrations—many from the Manchester Union Leader—mention the “New Hampshire Primary Game.” Like many board games, the “primary game” includes wild cards—for instance, a college student volunteer landing on a wild card might have to explain his or her candidate’s position on the nuclear freeze. There’s an automatic 20-point deduction for lame responses like “The candidate is still studying whether freezing is the best way to solve nuclear waste disposal problems.”

Programs keep interest alive

In addition to maintaining a specialized collection, the library hosts many programs and events throughout the year—as many as six to eight forums each week. The “Politics and Eggs” breakfast gives candidates, national leaders, and policy-makers an opportunity to talk with New Hampshire power brokers from business, education, and government, and the annual New Hampshire Primary Award honors those who helped perpetuate the primary. In September 2011, for example, Sens. John McCain and John Kerry were honored, as was the late Washington Post reporter David Broder. The “Conversation with the Candidate” series, sponsored by the library and local TV station WMUR, invites presidential candidates to a one-hour taping led by a news anchor, followed by questions from the studio audience as well as the internet.

The newest program, “Kids Voting”—a multistate K–12 civics program that debuted in 2008 in 11 New Hampshire cities and towns—is resuming for the 2012 election. As part of the national Kids Voting USA program, the state program combines curricular lessons with a real-life voting experience at the polls on Election Day. The library also partnered with the Londonderry School District to design lessons and produce a 30-minute DVD on the history of the New Hampshire primary.

In June, the library hosted the CNN Republican presidential debates. Fifty volunteer student ambassadors from Saint Anselm College assisted library staff. “They greet and introduce the candidates and hand out information,” says Levesque, whose past duties have included meeting Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Army Gen. David Petraeus. He notes that the dignitaries “are different when they’re not in front of the camera.”

Several years ago Barbara D. Miles, former archivist of the New Hampshire Political Library, wrote in the New England Archivists (NEA) newsletter that she felt honored to meet the political candidates and to participate in an “exercise in freedom.” She added, “As an archive devoted to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, the New Hampshire Political Library is second to none.”

JANICE ARENOFSKY is a Phoenix-based freelancer and former librarian who has written for magazines including Preservation, Newsweek, Experience Life, American Forests, and Herizons.

(Sidebar) Genesis of a Library

Founded in 1997 by former Republican Gov. Hugh Gregg and Secretary of State Bill Gardner, the New Hampshire Political Library was initially named the Library and Archives of New Hampshire’s Political Tradition. According to Michael Chaney, library director from 2001 to 2009, two departments—the State Library and the Archives—joined forces to assist local officials and act as a source of information for the media, students, and scholars.

The “long tradition of the New Hampshire primary attracted a lot of press,” says Chaney, “especially when candidates filed.”

At first the library, with a first-year operating budget of $163,000, occupied a reading room off the main floor of the State Library in Concord, across the street from the Capitol building. Seed money flowed from private donations such as a July 1999 $500-a-plate dinner in Washington, D.C., attended by 400 people who traded political stories such as Gov. George Romney’s 35 tries at knocking down one remaining pin during a 1968 candlepin bowling event.

Gov. Gregg personally assembled the library’s core collection—materials from 150 or so political supporters, including local activists, party delegates, and former presidential candidates. Under Library Director Michael York’s guidance, reference librarians processed election-related documents (which included papers from Harold Stassen’s campaign manager, current Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and an account of Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential run) into a searchable electronic database.

That was the genesis of the research library, Chaney says: “a straightforward realization of a public program to encourage the running of the first elimination contest in the nation.”