“Historians and Archivists in the First World War”


Waldo G. Leland delivered his second presidential address at the fifth annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Hartford, Connecticut, on October 6, 1941.  This address was published in the American Archivist in January 1942.  He indicated that some follow-up actions had been prompted by his previous address, including committees and reports that looked at emergency activities and archival preservation.  He then expanded on the topic by focusing on how historians and archivists were used during World War One.  Keep in mind — at the time he delivered this address, the United States was still a little more than two months away from declaring its entrance into World War Two.

Leland made two significant points early in this address.  First of all, he argued that “until the first World War, the function of the archivist and historian was to record and interpret after the event” (2).  He also acknowledged that at the time of WWI, most archivists were historians by training.  He went on to elaborate on how the role of archivist/historian changed, and just as with his predecessor Newsome, Leland couldn’t know that training as an historian would fall out of favor in the archival community later in the 20th century.

Leland described the establishment of the National Board for Historical Service in 1917.  It had three basic purposes:

  1. coordinate historical activities
  2. supply “trustworthy information” (4)
  3. organize committees

He went on to elaborate on the work of this Board:

  1. The first category he listed was research, which included providing background for news stories, making the public aware of the “long perspective” (5), and trying to anticipate the problems of world reconstruction after WWI.  The Board produced numerous bibliographies and compilations.  These sorts of activities come the closest to explaining his earlier implication that the role of historians was shifting away from merely interpreting events after they occurred.
  2. Secondly, the Board was involved in publication, mostly in encouraging historians to inform public opinion through news outlets.
  3. The Board organized lecture programs.
  4. The Board focused on education by producing circular letters and pamphlets of suggested readings for use in schools.
  5. The Board’s members gave service through the government, working for the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the Department of State, and the Enemy-Press Intelligence Service, to name a few.  In describing the pamphlets written for the CPI, Leland said “the authors of the booklets were instructed to produce nothing that they would be ashamed of twenty years later” (13).  If only we could all act with such a notion in mind!
  6. The Board stimulated the collection of war records.  A letter from the National Board for Historical Service to organizations such as state historical commissions, historical societies, and libraries encouraged them to engage in “‘the systematic and inclusive collection and preservation of all kinds of materials serving to record and illustrate present events'” (10).

Leland concluded his address with a summary of how these WWI experiences affected the archival profession.  He argued that as a result, conditions improved in many ways, including the formation of the National Archives, improved statistical operations (largely due to the invention of the Hollerith machine in 1888 that enabled faster tabulations), microphotography, rapid cataloguing, and better scholarship.

In the first of many inspirational thoughts in SAA presidential addresses about the importance of archival work, Leland concluded with this sentence:

“The conviction that our work is necessary — that it is indispensable to the education of public opinion — that it must influence momentous decisions that are endlessly to be made — and that through it we have a real, even a great, part in the shaping of destiny — this conviction is at once our inspiration and our support” (17).


Tune in next week to read about Robert D.W. Connor’s address entitled “Adventures of an Amateur Archivist.”


“The Archivist in Times of Emergency”


Waldo G. Leland was president of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) from 1939-1941, and he delivered the presidential address at the annual meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, on November 12, 1940.  It was printed in the American Archivist in January 1941.  Leland had no training as an archivist, but while he was pursuing his undergraduate degree at Brown University, he worked with historian J. Franklin Jameson, which led to his working on an archival study and co-writing the volume The Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington (1904).  Along with Jameson, Leland lobbied Congress to create the National Archives.  Funding for a building was appropriated in 1926, and the agency was established in 1934.  Leland was also active in the creation of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, serving as chairman of the Executive Committee from 1946-1952.  Overlapping with his tenure as SAA president, Leland was the director of the American Council of Learned Societies.

In this presidential address, Leland acknowledged the words of his predecessor, quoting the conclusion of Newsome’s 1939 presidential address.  He also made numerous references to articles published in the American Archivist.  His focus on a prior SAA leader and its flagship publication is interesting considering that he presumed his appointment as president of SAA was a signal that the organization wanted to broaden its focus beyond a narrow, technical one.

He referred to the state of affairs in 1940 as a “limited emergency” — or what will come to be known as World War Two.  Leland used this platform to outline the material and moral interests of archivists.  His analysis focused on four points:

  1. Archivists are responsible for the physical safety of the records in their custody.  He pointed to the Roerich Pact, which had been signed by FDR and all the members of the Pan-American Union in 1935.  But with air raids ravaging Europe at the time, Leland recognized this pact was insufficient.  He recommended “that archives of great sentimental value should be removed to places of undoubted security, that archives of which it is indispensable to keep an exact record should be microphotographed, and that the balance of the archives be left to take their chances, after such practical precautions as may be possible have been effected” (4).  [NOTE: Leland is using the term archives in this sense, as defined by Richard Pearce-Moses: “Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records”]
  2. Leland also made a compelling argument that archivists needed to take appropriate measures before an emergency, which would facilitate their operations during an emergency.  And, of course, in November 1940, this was the situation for the United States, which was not yet directly involved in the combat of WWII.  He pointed out the dramatic increase of government records during World War One and suggested archivists needed to develop measures to decrease their holdings — either by transfer, destruction, or compression (i.e., microfilming).  One of the other American Archivist articles that he cited was “Reduction of Public Records,” in which Emmett J. Leahy argued for an important role for archivists before records crossed the threshold — both in discouraging the creation of excess records and in eliminating documents with no permanent value.
  3. Leland suggested archivists should act as consultants, performing “duties analogous to those of the historical section of a general staff, making available for future planning the experience of the past” (8).
  4. Given his experience cataloging records from the WWI era, Leland argued that archivists needed to be proactive in gathering and preserving “the materials of all sorts upon which the history of the emergency in all its aspects must ultimately be based” (9).  He suggested a manual should be created to coordinate these activities.  Leland will talk about WWI again in his 1941 address, “Historians and Archivists in the First World War.”  Tune in next week for its summary.

“The Archivist in American Scholarship”


At the meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) on October 13, 1939, in Annapolis, Maryland, Albert R. Newsome read his presidential address entitled “The Archivist in American Scholarship.”  It was printed in the American Archivist in October 1939.  Throughout his term as SAA president, Newsome was also the head of the history department at the University of North Carolina.  His papers from his 1934-1950 tenure as department head are available at the Wilson Special Collections Library.

In this 1939 address, Newsome echoed some of the comments he made in the previous year, emphasizing that archival interests had been “nationalized and professionalized” (217).  He also renewed the quest for public records laws that could educate and supervise the custodians of government records.  Newsome felt there was a need to examine the professional role of archivists.  He began by describing the “restrictionist” definition of an archivist, with the archivist as servant of the archives and focused primarily on preservation (and help to researchers only a distant second in importance).  In this scheme, the jobs of making the archives, destroying documents, and determining the time to transfer records to an archivist were all accorded to the administrators of the records; politicians and users would be the ones to determine which elements of the archives were published and made available to the public and what sorts of funding was available.

Newsome was not content with this compartmentalized view of archivists’ responsibilities.  He focused on public archives to make his case (meaning records created by government entities).  Where restrictionists gave to the administrator of the records the right to determine their value, Newsome contended that “as they decline in value and approach or attain uselessness as business records, they increase in value and approach or attain exclusive importance as historical records” (218-19).  Speaking in 1939 — during the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and about six weeks after the start of World War Two — Newsome made in interesting prediction about the future of archives:

The archives of the future will possess even greater historical value because they will record an ever expanding segment of human achievement as public activities expand in response to the democratic concept of government as the common agent for solving the ever growing number of common problems which emerge from an ever increasingly complex social organism (219).

Where most administrators of public records are political officials, mostly untrained in scholarship, and often having a brief tenure in office, Newsome argued that archivists were much better suited to determine which records should be destroyed and which should be preserved for research.  In order for archivists to be qualified for this work of appraisal, Newsome suggested that training for archivists should consist of a college degree with specialization in the social sciences (including history, government, and foreign languages) along with a Ph.D. in American history.  To answer those who charged that historians make bad archivists because they will be predisposed to favor the records crucial to their own research, Newsome explained, “There is no real antagonism between sound historical scholarship and archival competency” (220).

Once again demonstrating his willingness to contradict Hilary Jenkinson, Newsome did not stop at the suggestion that archivists appraise records for destruction and accession, adding that the archivist “become an aggressive collector rather than a passive receiver of archives” (221).  In another forward-looking evaluation, he contended that the long-term value of archival records is dependent on their use, thereby necessitating publication of records as well as the provision of reference and informational services for researchers.

Newsome concluded,

“The American archivist is a scholar, an expert technician skilled in the arts of his profession, and a public administrator. . . .  He will discover that archival production, collection, preservation, and use are interrelated parts of an integral process which can not and should not be too rigidly compartmentalized. . . .  He will also learn that he is better qualified than anyone else to concern himself with the entire range of archival interests and must do so in order to save archives from impairment by administrators, politicians, and researchers and to make his own work most effective and fruitful” (223-24).

Newsome’s emphasis on historical training for archivists is no longer de rigueur, but knowing that World War Two spawned a mushrooming of records that sparked some changes within the archival profession, I find Newsome’s analysis and suggestions still have bearing.  His expansion of the appropriate role of the archivist to encompass the creation stage of records presages the continuum model of recordkeeping that emerged in Australia in the late 20th century.

Next week, I’ll look at “The Archivist in Times of Emergency.”

“Uniform State Archival Legislation”


With the beginning of a new year, I am embarking on a new endeavor.  This post is the first in a series of reviews of the presidential addresses delivered at the annual meetings of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  The SAA was formed in 1936, and the first address I can find is from the second annual meeting in 1938, which took place in Springfield, Illinois.  The first president of SAA, Albert R. Newsome, served from 1936-1939.  At the time, he was head of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he had previously served as the Secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission (the predecessor to the State Archives of North Carolina).

On October 25, 1938, Newsome read his presidential address entitled “Uniform State Archival Legislation.”  It was printed in the American Archivist in January 1939.  He argued that in order for state archives to be successful, they needed state legislation, a system/form of administration, intelligent public opinion, professional (nonpolitical) personnel, and adequate funding (2).  He elaborated on this goal to say “every state should have an official archival agency with permissive authority to collect and administer noncurrent state and local archives, so constituted and governed as to provide the maximum likelihood that the archival function will be placed in the hands of capable and trained persons who have the greatest possible freedom from political and extraneous influences which tend to vitiate the professional character of archival administration” (7).  He summed up his main point toward the end of the address:

The impressive volume, variety and similarity of state archival legislation in the United States indicate a wide recognition of the essential nature, importance and identity or similarity of the archival problems in the various states.  The experience of the states is sufficiently extensive to permit the formulation of a sound and constructive public records law, applying successful principles and practices to most of the archival problems which are common to all of the states (15).

He went on to suggest that each state needed an official, professional state archival agency and should construct a public records law.  Newsome had a very broad notion of a public records law, arguing that it should:

  • include a definition of public archives
  • assign legal custody of public records
  • prescribe the quality of paper and ink used for public records
  • outlaw archival abuses (e.g., altering, defacement, mutilation, stealing, destroying)
  • include a mechanism for recovering archives from political predecessors
  • require custodians of public records to repair and renovate worn volumes
  • outline procedures to restore lost, missing or destroyed archives (i.e., deeds, wills, mortgages, etc.)
  • specify the transfer of archives from defunct agencies
  • encourage the use of fireproof storage facilities
  • make government records available to the public — and Newsome pointed out that California, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon went so far as to have laws requiring records to be “so arranged as to be easily accessible for convenient use by the public”
  • specify a procedure for making copies of records that can then be admissible in courts
  • regulate destructions of public records
  • limit the quantity of public records maintained

I was interested to see that in making these last two points, Newsome took on the archival giant Hilary Jenkinson, who had just released a revised edition of his Manual of Archive Administration in 1937.  Where Jenkinson vociferously argued against deaccessioning any records that had crossed the archival threshold, Newsome was concerned about the growing quantity of public archives and concluded that “the administrator and the archivist share in the determination of what records should be destroyed” (14).  He suggested microfilming records could be one way to reduce the bulk of records, while using “uniform, simplified forms” could be a means of reducing quantity at the point of creation (14).

Newsome also went on to challenge the SAA to take leadership in creating “a model state system of archival legislation based on successful experience and designed to solve the basic archival problems that are common to the states” (16).


Much of what Newsome addressed is reflected in modern archival practices.  The Council of State Archivists maintains a Directory of State and Territorial Archives and Records Programs, and the Library of Congress (LC) has compiled a list of state public records laws.  All 50 states have some sort of official archival agency — up from the 33 out of 48 states at the time of this address.  As of the 2001 LC list, 45 states had a public records law (although they do lack much of the specificity suggested by Newsome).


Tune in next week to hear about “The Archivist in American Scholarship.”