In 1969, the Recording Industry Association of America offered to donate a collection of recordings to the White House “reflecting the wide range of American interest in recorded music, as well as drama, prose and poetry” (White House Historical Association, 1973). This donation resulted in the White House Record Library, a collection of approximately 2,000 recordings presented in a ceremony to then First Lady Pat Nixon in 1973. But this is not a collection that is completely unique to the White House: the Library of Congress also has a White House Record Library.
Before telling the story of the Library of Congress’ White House Record Library, let’s talk about the collection. First, it’s important to note that the White House Record Library was limited in size in order to actually fit into the White House. And the size limitation may also be because, as Record Library commissioner Irving Kolodin stated, “Three blocks from the White House, the Library of Congress has the largest collection in the world of rare records” (Campbell, 1973).
The scope of the White House Record Library also differs from that of the collections of the Library of the Congress. In “reflecting American cultural tastes,” the selections were “not necessarily American music” because “exceptions were made for performers from other lands who have had a substantial impact on American culture” (White House Historical Association, 1973). Thus, the inclusion of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra’s recording of Ralph Vaughn Williams, Eugène Ionesco’s “The Chairs” alongside Aretha Franklin and Don Ho.
The collection was compiled by five appointees responsible for each genre of music included in the collection. Those members of the commission, and their area of expertise, were Paul Ackerman (Country, Folk, Gospel), Willis Conover (Jazz), Irving Kolodin (Classical), Johnny Mercer (Popular), and Helen Roach (Spoken Word). Spoken Word included the humor of Bob Newhart, Moms Mabley, and the Marx Brothers, to name a few.
In 1979, a new commission was formed by then First Lady Rosalynn Carter. While classical, jazz, and popular were still genre categories, there were now listings for country, folk, and white gospel recordings; and contemporary popular and Latin recordings. And within this category are sub-categories for Rhythm-and-Blues (or Soul), Blues, and Black Gospel recordings.
Why the change? Well, in commissioner Ed Bland’s words:
Among the considerations involved in the selection of recordings for the Rhythm-and-Blues (or Soul), Blues, and Black Gospel sections – new categories in the 1980 edition of the White House Record Library – was the need to reveal the significant contribution of black American culture to the American musical scene in areas other than jazz (White House Historical Association, 1980).
And in commissioner Bob Blumenthal’s words:
“The music of Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other Latin American countries has obvious relevance to folk and jazz as well as popular music; given the growing number of Spanish-speaking United States citizens (and the growing popularity of Latin music among Americans) a separate listing seems both appropriate and necessary” (White House Historical Association, 1980).
These new perspectives and the resulting White House Record Library included the Bee Gees, Santana, the Sex Pistols, Texas-Mexican border music, and the Staple Singers. Even more titles are listed in the catalogs for the White House Record Library, available at the Library of Congress, and in this NPR article from earlier this year, which initially inspired my research.
So how did the collection make its way to the Library of Congress? When First Lady Pat Nixon announced plans for the White House Record Library in 1970, “it was also decided that a duplicate of the White House Library collection would be established at another Washington location so the public could enjoy the recordings.” Where would this location be? “…Possibly the Kennedy Center or the Smithsonian Institution,” according to a Washington Post article (Smith, 1970). The collection did indeed end up at the Kennedy Center, but specifically at the Performing Arts Library of the Library of Congress located at the Kennedy Center. Then, when the Library relocated this collection from the Kennedy Center, it become part of the LC’s Recorded Sound Section in 1994.
The number of items listed in the Library of Congress’s collection of the White House Record Library, which is also called the White House Collection, is roughly 5000. The albums are interfiled among the rest of the collection, though the Library does still have the colorful jackets used to store and identify the different albums by genre. If Library staff need to check if a copy of an album is from the White House Library, they simply look for the small “WH” on the corner of the back cover. This close-up of the back of Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” provides an example.
The White House Record Library at the Library of Congress’ Recorded Sound Research Center is today in the “Washington location” where the public can enjoy the recordings, as well as the accompanying catalogs in the collection.
Don’t hesitate to contact Ask a Librarian about White House Collection or any other items in our collections. Before you plan to come in and view any collection items, please get in touch with our reference staff in the Recorded Sound Research Room.