Connor historical marker

Connor historical marker outside the State Archives of North Carolina

Robert Digges Wimberly Connor delivered the presidential address at the sixth annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Richmond, Virginia, on October 26, 1942.  This address was published in the American Archivist in January 1943.  Connor’s 1942-1943 tenure as SAA president came soon after his resignation as the first Archivist of the United States (AOTUS).  Before making his mark as the first AOTUS, Connor helped to establish the North Carolina Historical Commission, which was the predecessor to the Department of Archives and History.  His papers are available at the Southern Historical Collection of the Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a professor for many years before and after his time in DC.

Connor opened his address with an explanation of the value of archivists in the midst of the Second World War:

“it is our firm conviction that our work as archivists will contribute
not only to victory but also to that just and sane peace that
must crown that victory.  We are the custodians of the accumulated
evidences of those traditions and ideals of democracy and freedom
for which we fight and without which, we believe, no such peace can
be established or maintained in the world” (1).

Connor then went on to recount his memories of the creation of the National Archives.  He focused on what he called “unrecorded experiences” — anecdotes rather than official records.  The first involved staffing the Archives, which for the first four years of its existence was a “patronage agency,” with staff members appointed “‘solely with reference to their fitness for their particular duties and without regard to civil-service law'” (4).  But Connor pointed out that the Great Depression that still enveloped the nation in these years (1934-1938) created a pool of highly qualified applicants, and he was able to avoid the snares of the “patronage bogey.”

Another memory related to getting early deposits to the National Archives, including from the U.S. Senate, a court, numerous independent establishments, and 10 executive departments, including the State Department and the War Department.  Connor mentioned in this context that there was a perceived archives vs. library struggle at the time (i.e., the National Archives vs. the Library of Congress), and he also noted that upon laying the cornerstone of the National Archives, President Hoover stated that “‘the most sacred documents of our history'” — including the originals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence — were destined to be housed at the National Archives (10).  What Connor failed to explain (though admittedly his 1942 audience likely knew) is that while the Bill of Rights was transferred to the National Archives in 1938, at the time of this address, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were still housed at the Library of Congress, where they had been since 1921 and would remain until 1952.  Ultimately, Connor pointed to a newspaper correspondent who correctly surmised this “struggle” was one that pitted that authority of the executive branch, which oversaw the National Archives, versus the legislative branch, which of course had authority over the Library of Congress.

With the transfer of materials from the War Department, the National Archives freed up 136,000 cubic feet of space for which the War Department had pressing need in the midst of World War Two.  As a result, the National Archives was designated as an essential defense agency.

Connor closed his address with a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been elected an honorary member of the SAA.  In addition to recounting his personal interest in records, FDR challenged the SAA to curry favor for creating preservation duplicates of government archives, specifically suggesting that microfilming records and storing that film in another location “might be called the only form of insurance that will stand the test of time” (17).  FDR would be happy to know that even in the 21st century, this is still a common practice.

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