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.”