Our First Archivist, Robert D.W. Connor

The National Archives was created on June 19, 1934. During the month of June, the National Archives History Office is sharing stories about the former Archivists of the United States. Today’s post is from Sarah Basilion. 

Archivist Portraits

Portrait of Archivist Robert D.W. Conner which hangs in the National Archives Building, 1952. (Records of the National Archives)

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Robert D.W. Connor the first Archivist of the United States in 1934, Connor faced the challenge of laying a foundation for a new Federal agency.

A native of North Carolina, Connor attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a degree in 1899. Throughout his career, Connor dedicated himself to preserving and teaching history.

He served as a secretary for an educational campaign committee, was a member of the North Carolina Historical Commission (which later became the North Carolina State Department of Archives and History), and held positions at the North Carolina Teachers’ Assembly and the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

During his work at the North Carolina Historical Commission, Connor helped the commission to become one of the most respected state historical agencies in the country.

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Letter to President Roosevelt recommending Robert Connor for the position of Archivist of the United States, July 11, 1934. (National Archives Identifier: 12079015)

Connor’s interest in education and history came together in the 1920s, when he accepted a position as a professor of history and government at the University of North Carolina.

He was working there in 1934 when the American Historical Association, impressed by Connor’s previous work in the archival and historical fields, recommended his name to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for consideration to be the first Archivist of the United States at the newly created National Archives.

President Roosevelt officially nominated Connor for the position on October 10, 1934. Although the Senate did not confirm his position until the following March, Connor began his duties immediately, as there was much to be done to establish the nascent agency.

From the beginning, Connor faced challenges.

When he took office, the National Archives Building had not yet been completed, a full staff had not been assembled or trained, and he had to develop procedures to acquire, archive, and preserve 150 years of Federal records that were currently stored in unsuitable conditions in buildings around the country.

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Construction of the National Archives Building, May 1, 1934. (National Archives Identifier 7368457)

For the first year of Connor’s tenure, he and his staff worked from temporary office space across from the site of the National Archives Building, and were only able to move into their permanent home in November 1935.

Connor’s initial task was to determine what the National Archives would accession. When the agency was established, there were no guidelines specifying the types of documents and records the Archives would take.

The National Archives Act permitted Connor to review the archives “of any agency of the United States Government whatsoever and wheresoever located,” but did not determine what types of records would go to the Archives.

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Remarks by R.D.W. Connor at the first meeting of the General Assembly of National Archives Staff, November 12, 1935. (National Archives Identifier 12078842)

Connor worked with members of the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and chairmen from Senate and House committees to decide which records would come to the National Archives.

With no precedent to inform the structure of the National Archives, Connor decided to model the agency on the Library of Congress.

He and Dorsey W. Hyde, Jr., a library and information specialist and one of the original Archives employees, developed a plan: Connor would have four key assistants who oversaw departments and handled administrative work. Further, they determined that archival work would be done by nine different departments: Accessions, Repair and Preservation, Classification, Cataloging, Reference, Research, Maps and Charts, Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings, and the Library.

As his staff came together, Connor focused on obtaining records from Federal agencies, many of which resisted giving up their records, in particular the War Department. Connor fought to accession their records—he knew his staff could restore and better preserve records that were currently being kept in poor conditions, and he recognized how valuable having documents in one place would be to researchers.

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Photograph of War Department files previous to coming to the National Archives, 9/17/1935. (National Archives Identifier 18519687)

Connor’s persistence, with some help from the President, led to the Archives accessioning 58,800 cubic feet of records by mid-1936.

Archival holdings steadily grew throughout Connor’s tenure, and by the time he left the agency in 1941, the Archives had accessioned more than 300,000 cubic feet of textual documents, 77,500 maps and atlases, 4.5 million running feet of motion picture film, 3,800 sound recordings, and more than 215,000 still pictures.

In 1941, pleased with his accomplishments at the National Archives, Connor returned to the classroom to continue his career as a professor. Connor accepted the Craige Professorship of History and Jurisprudence at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and continued there until his retirement in 1949.

After leaving the National Archives, he also served as the president of the Society of American Archivists and chairman of the North Carolina Historical Commission.

Robert D.W. Connor’s leadership of the National Archives during its formative years established the structure, role, and importance of the agency. Connor successfully took an agency that did not have a building, a staff, or a clear plan and turned it into the preeminent repository of historical records in the nation.

To learn more about the creation of the National Archives and the appointment of Robert D.W. Connor, read Historian Jessie Kratz’s 2014 blog post “Happy 80th Birthday National Archives.”

Or visit our website to learn about the history of the National Archives.

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Archivist of the United States R. D. W. Connor receives the film Gone With the Wind from Senator George of Georgia and Loew’s Eastern Division Manager Carter Barron, 1941. (National Archives Identifier 3493235)

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