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.