George W. Bush's library offers his side of the story

Thursday's dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center will be nothing short of a bipartisan lovefest: Former President George W. Bush will host President Obama and the three other living presidents as they unveil the 226,565-square-foot complex at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

On the outskirts of the campus, however, protesters plan on keeping memories of Mr. Bush's controversial decisions fresh.

Less than five years after he left office, those aspects of Mr. Bush's presidency -- the Iraq war, the use of enhanced interrogation, the response to Hurricane Katrina -- are hard to overlook. So in his new library and museum, the former president doesn't try to. Following the theme of his memoir, titled "Decision Points," Mr. Bush's new library appeals to visitors to consider the pressures Mr. Bush faced in office and consider whether they would have made different decisions.

Opening and curating the inaugural exhibit of a presidential library -- like writing a memoir or sitting down for softball interviews -- is just one step former presidents take to "rehabilitate" their reputation after leaving office, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said to Mr. Bush may not be able to change the events of his presidency, but he can still influence the way they're perceived.

"Basically, you're running for history instead of office," Brinkley said. "Legacy is what matters in the end, and you don't give up the fight just because you're not in Washington anymore."

A presidential library, however, isn't just a promotional center for former presidents. Including the George W. Bush Presidential Center, there are 14 presidential libraries and museums administered by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Their construction and opening are paid for by private funds -- more than $500 million was raised for the new Bush complex -- but their upkeep is paid for by U.S. taxpayers. The National Archives expects to spend $68.7 million in administration at the presidential libraries in 2013.

"Our collective mission is to promote a further understanding of the presidency and to provide access to historical materials," Susan Donius, director of the Archives' Office of Presidential Libraries, told, "to further engage the public in the study of the presidency."

Donius noted, however, that having a president's point of view on record serves more than just his own self-interest.

"If you have the opportunity to come to the Bush Center, you'll see this is a unique story of this president and his history," she said. "He's worked closely with the museum designers to present those key critical moments in his presidency... it gives an interesting perspective, and it's an important historical record of his time in office."

Several presidents have established their presidential libraries in their hometowns, and more recently they've been established on or near a university campus. The 13 previously-established libraries in the Archives' system saw more than 1.9 million visitors in 2012. The most popular museum last year was the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, which saw more than 380,000 visitors.

The libraries and museums house vast archives of documents, records, artifacts and other presidential materials. Brinkley, who has visited every presidential library, said establishing them in each president's home state "breaks up the congestion of Washington, D.C."