Archivist Solon J. Buck: Wartime Leader

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 the second Archivist of the United States Solon Buck, which hangs in the National Archives Building. (1960 painting  based on a 1941 photograph; Records of the National Archives)

In 1935, Solon J. Buck was appointed Assistant Director to serve under the first Archivist of the United States, Robert D.W. Connor.

Following an education at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University, the Wisconsin native started his career as a history professor. He taught at Indiana University, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Pittsburgh.

His extensive background in history, including a time as the superintendent of the Minnesota State Historical Society, prepared Buck well for a position at the new National Archives, and he joined the agency in 1935.

By 1941, Archivist Robert D.W. Connor was ready to retire, and the search for his replacement began. Considering Buck’s impressive work in helping Connor to establish the National Archives, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Buck as the second Archivist of the United States on September 18, 1941.

Solon J. Buck’s ID card as Archivist of the United States, September 18, 1941. (National Archives Identifier 12091049)

Less than three months later, the United States entered World War II, and the role of the National Archives became more important than ever.

Just a few shorts months into his tenure as Archivist of the United States, Buck needed to find the best way for the National Archives to support the war effort.

In 1942, Second Archivist of the United States Dr. Solon J. Buck receives a recording of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (National Archives Identifier 3493240)

Buck, along with the Society of American Archivists, determined that the first way the National Archives could help the United States as it entered the war was to “control the tremendous output of records which was sure to be generated.”

As the National Archives stores all permanently valuable records created by the Federal government, U.S. entry into World War II meant that Buck needed to find a way to catalog and store more records than the Archives had ever seen.

In the four-year span before U.S. entry into World War II, the National Archives averaged 54,000 cubic feet of accessions (new records) a year. In 1942, the first full year of U.S. involvement in the war, that number tripled.

To handle the massive influx of records, Buck instituted a regimented accession procedure: deputy examiners reviewed documents and determined which were to be acquisitioned. The Repair and Preservation division then received the documents upon their arrival to the National Archives and began preservation procedures. Last, the properly cleaned and repaired documents were transported to the stacks, where “archivists with the appropriate custodial division assumed control” of them.

Throughout the war, this process helped the National Archives to store and preserve an unprecedented amount of records.

Topographic map of Eastern Attu Island, one of the Aleutian Islands occupied by Japan during World War II. The map includes annotations relating to the battle to retake the island from Japanese forces during World War II. (National Archives Identifier 6919555)

Buck found several other ways for the National Archives to assist the war effort, such as prioritizing the processing of World War I documents so they could be referenced by various agencies and governmental departments, and responding to reference requests from other agencies who required Archives-held records to do their part to help the war effort.

Even more helpful, archivists located maps and photographs that proved invaluable to the Army, Navy, and Office of Strategic Strategies. For example, an archivist found a map showing passages through the Alps, while another archivist found records from an 1870 fishing expedition that contained information about the Aleutian Islands occupied by the Japanese.

Buck led the National Archives through the war and proved its value to the government and other Federal agencies.

By 1948, Solon J. Buck was ready to move onto a new venture. He resigned from the National Archives and joined the Library of Congress, where he remained until his retirement in 1954.

Throughout his tenure, Buck was able to expand on the foundation laid by Robert D.W. Connor but also put his own distinctive mark on the National Archives. His leadership of the agency throughout World War II had an important impact on the war effort and helped the Allies on their way to victory.

All directly quoted material is taken from: Rodney A. Ross, “The National Archives: The Formative Years, 1934-1949,” in Guardians of Heritage: Essays on the History of the National Archives, edited by Timothy Walch, pp. 33-51, National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1985.

The Solon Buck Portrait Unveiling Ceremony, April 8, 1960. Left to right: Theodore C. Blegen, Dean, University of Minnesota Graduate School; Waldo G. Leland, Director Emeritus, American Council of Learned Societies; Guy Stanton Ford, President Emeritus, University of Minnesota; Elizabeth E. Hamer, Assistant Librarian for Public Affairs, Library of Congress; Solon J. Buck, former Archivist of the United States; Ernst Posner, Dean Emeritus, the American University Graduate School; and Wayne C. Grover, Archivist of the United States. (National Archives Identifier 12169807)

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