Robert M. Warner delivered his presidential address to the 1977 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Salt Lake City, Utah.  His address was published in the January 1978 issue of the American Archivist.  Prior to serving as SAA president, Warner was the chair of the planning committee for the Gerald R. Ford Library, which is housed on the campus of the University of Michigan.  Knowing that he soon became the sixth Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), I find it amusing that the title of his address inverted the motto that appears beneath the statue representing the future that sits in front of the National Archives with the marker “What is Past is Prologue.”  Warner served as AOTUS from 1980-1985.  It was under Warner’s leadership that the National Archives was removed from the oversight of the General Services Administration and became an independent agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  After his stint with NARA, Warner returned to the University of Michigan, finishing his distinguished career as the Dean of the School of Information.

Warner explained that he had two thoughts for the topic of his presidential address: archival professionalism and presidential libraries.  He chose to use the latter as a prism for reflecting on the former.  He provided a good deal of background on how the Michigan Historical Collections at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor came to house the papers of Gerald R. Ford.  One of the most informative elements in this commentary was his explanation for the paucity of materials from Ford’s early congressional service:

“His natural and genuine modesty and his refusal to recognize his own  self-importance all are characteristics that most of us admire, but in this case they had a serious negative effect on the archival record.  Until we suggested that he save his papers, Mr. Ford and his staff had regularly and systematically thrown them out every two years to make room for new material” (6).

The Michigan Historical Collections began their efforts to convince Ford to deposit his papers at their repository in 1964, and the success of this acquisition took on new importance when Ford was nominated to be Vice President in October 1973.  Meeting with Ford a few months after this event, Warner encouraged him “to create a record that would be useful for history beyond the formal paperwork that would go through his office” (8).  Of course, Ford went on to become President after Nixon’s resignation, so after he lost his re-election bid in 1976, a decision had to be made regarding the disposition of his presidential papers.  In December 1976, he signed an agreement with NARA that Warner described as precedent-setting on several fronts:

  1. Ford deeded the papers to the United States, which had never before been done by a sitting President.  (Of course, the 1978 Presidential Records Act would soon stipulate that presidential papers are publicly owned, so from Ronald Reagan to the present, this step has not been necessary.)  It does appear that his congressional papers he had earlier deposited at the Michigan Historical Collections also became a part of the presidential library collection.
  2. While Ford’s papers were deposited and his presidential library erected in Ann Arbor, Ford’s museum was built in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Warner asserted separation of the research and museum functions of a presidential library was useful “to insure that the archival facilities are located at sites which are sympathetic, complementary, and supportive of the kind of research activity that goes on in a vigorous archives” (12).
  3. The Ford Presidential Library has a close working relationship with its host institution, the University of Michigan.
  4. Warner explained there could have been a new precedent attempted by allowing the University of Michigan to control the presidential library, but instead, the agreement placed the library under NARA’s control.
  5. The University of Michigan held an advisory role that allowed them to influence the selection of a professional archivist to direct the presidential library.  Herein lies the connection to Warner’s other potential topic of archival professionalism, for he contended that choosing a professional archivist rather than a former staff member or government bureaucrat helped to professionalize the position.
  6. Perhaps the separation of the library from the museum facilitated this decision, but the construction of the library building was strongly guided by good archival practice.  Warner suggested that having these buildings be publicly funded could eliminate the monument aspects that creep into most presidential libraries, but this has not yet occurred.  (Instead, the 1986 Presidential Libraries Act requires private endowments to offset the costs of maintaining presidential libraries.)
  7. Whereas the Final Report of the National Study Commission on Records and Documents of Federal Officials recommended a 15-year period before papers were open to full access, the Ford library set a limit of 13 years.

Weighing in on one of the long-time topics of debate regarding presidential libraries, Warner sided with decentralization of these collections in separate facilities, arguing that it “allows for more innovation and experimentation” (13).  (For more analysis of this debate, see the paper I wrote on accessing records in presidential libraries.)

Warner suggested three ways in which presidential libraries could broaden their archival role:

  1. “Perhaps these institutions should take over more of the functions of the regional centers and acquire some of the materials being collected there by the National Archives, so they can serve as repositories for a wide variety of federal records instead of documents relating to only one particular presidential administration” (14).
  2. establish conservation centers that would service not only their own materials but also those of the surrounding region
  3. serve as “laboratories for the training of archivists not only in the federal system but beyond” (14)

Warner concluded his address by asserting that presidential libraries “will change and they must change if they are not to become expensive fossils of limited use to the research community and to the archival profession” (15).