Doing Research at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Statue of FDR's dog, Fala at the visitor's center in Hyde Park, NY

Statue of FDR’s dog, Fala at the visitor’s center in Hyde Park, NY

Two years ago this week, I was conducting research for my book at the FDR Library. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was in Hyde Park, New York and I was using the library’s resources, but both the library and the museum were undergoing renovations. The library was off-limits to visitors, but the library staff set up a cozy room in the visitor’s center for researchers to view the library’s archives. Every morning the other patrons and I arrived early to request the boxes of materials we needed, and one of the archivist’s assistants brought them in on carts.

Sometimes I wish I had the chance to see the actual library, but that didn’t bother me at the time. I was too focused on reading documents from the War Refugee Board files and taking pictures of them with my digital camera (photocopying was not allowed because some of the documents were fragile). I also remember thinking that the presidential library might be large and intimidating. Frankly, doing research for my first book was intimidating enough, so I was content with the smaller room.

The visitor’s center also had a statue of FDR’s dog, Fala, near the entrance. I love dogs and missed my beagle mix who stayed with my mother in Illinois. The staff at the center may have thought I was a little odd when I said, “good morning, Fala” and “see you tomorrow, Fala” every day, but then they were probably used to eccentric researchers.

The best part of the library/visitor’s center was Virginia, the archivist. The library had a great online finding aid, so I knew which documents I needed and the boxes they were located in. Unfortunately, there were two documents that I had only seen cited in other history books, and I had no idea how to locate them. Virginia didn’t, either because the filing system was changed after those books were written, making the citations almost worthless. Fortunately for me and my book, Virginia was determined to find what I needed. She seemed to take it personally when she couldn’t find a document. I thought, this woman is a researcher’s dream come true. I still can’t figure out how she located those documents, but she managed it somehow and I went back to Illinois with all the sources I needed.

Some day I want to return to Hyde Park as a tourist, but I enjoyed almost every minute that I spent researching my book.

Fala: Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidential Pup

President Franklin Roosevelt owned a variety of dogs throughout his life, but when he was elected president he needed one that wouldn’t misbehave. In 1940, FDR’s cousin gave him a Scottish Terrier for Christmas. FDR named the dog Fala and he became instantly popular with everyone in the White House. A few weeks after Fala arrived, he got sick to his stomach. The White House staff had become so fond of him that everyone gave the little dog too much food. After that, FDR ordered that only he would feed Fala and the dog got better. In order to receive his food, Fala first had to do tricks like shaking hands and begging, but he didn’t seem to mind as long as his master was there.

Fala was the president’s nearly constant companion. He met with important world leaders and was present when FDR signed the Atlantic Charter, which outlined the aims England and the U.S. had for World War II. He attended press conferences and was trained to shake hands so he could welcome important people to the White House. In the evening he helped FDR entertain guests, or sometimes he napped. The dog even slept in the president’s bedroom at night.

Fala’s popularity was not limited to FDR and the White House staff, however. Photographers loved taking pictures of the Scottie. Fan mail regularly arrived for him from people all over the country. He received more letters and certainly more compliments than most presidents. A book about Fala was written for his adoring fans. In it, Fala expressed his disappointment that the Secret Service would not allow him to attend his master’s third inauguration. Though both were sad when FDR passed away, Fala quickly became First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s companion.