Robert H. Bahmer: Bringing the National Archives into the Spotlight

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. 

Robert H. Bahmer served as fourth Archivist of the United States, from 1965 to 1968.

Archivist Portraits
Portrait of the Fourth Archivist of the United States Robert Bahmer which hangs in the National Archives Building. (Records of the National Archives)

Originally from North Dakota, he earned his bachelor’s degree from North Dakota State Teachers College in 1928.

He later earned a master’s degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1938 and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Minnesota in 1941.

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Bahmer worked as a teacher and principal in North Dakota before moving to Washington, DC, in 1934 to work for the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1936 he joined the newly formed National Archives. Bahmer became a specialist in records management and was loaned to the Navy for such work after the United States entered World War II in 1941.

Robert Bahmer’s National Archives Identification Card, February 3, 1941. (National Archives Identifier 12090986)

Throughout the war he served as chief of archival services for the Navy and deputy chief of the records management branch in the Army Adjutant General’s office.

Archivist of the U.S. Wayne C. Grover, Right, Deputy Archiivist Robert Bahmer, Left, at the Official Preview of the Freedom Train Exhibit, September 23, 1949. (National Archives Identifier 12167306)

Upon returning to the National Archives in 1948 he served as Deputy Archivist to Archivist of the United States Wayne C. Grover.

When Grover retired in 1965, Bahmer was first named Acting Archivist, until the General Services Administrator appointed him Archivist in January 1966 (while the National Archives was under GSA, the President did not nominate the Archivist of the United States).

One of Bahmer’s main goals as Archivist was to increase the visibility of the National Archives. Throughout his tenure, he instituted many projects aimed at fulfilling this goal.

One major project under Bahmer was having staff inventory and describe records held by the Archives and publishing the results.

Congressman Charles E. Bennett in stack area with Dr. Robert H. Bahmer, July 3, 1964. (National Archives Identifier 17616800)

These inventories and lists served to educate the public, scholars, and even archivists on the types of documents and microfilm the National Archives had in its possession. The following year, reference services grew by more than 10 percent, indicating that more people were interested in viewing and researching the documents at the Archives.

Bahmer’s efforts were paying off.

He continued to make the agency more visible in 1966, publishing “pamphlets describing the contents of 67 microfilm publications.” Bahmer understood that some people would be more interested in microfilm than text documents and wanted them to have the same knowledge of and access to microfilm as they did textual records.

Also during 1966, the National Archives began a new publication, “Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents,” which contained “statements, messages, and other Presidential materials released by the White House.” At the same time, the agency worked to increase reference aids to Presidential documents.

All of this was done in an attempt to make research easier for the public and scholars, and to ensure they were aware of all the treasures held within the National Archives.

Opening of Alaska Centennial Exhibit. Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska pointing to the treaty for the cession of Alaska. Pictured from left to right are: Dr. Joe E. Moody, Deputy Administrator of General Services; Senator E. L. Bartlett of Alaska; Representative Howard Pollack of Alaska; and Dr. Robert Bahmer, Archivist of the United States, June 21, 1967. (National Archives Identifier 23855050)

At the same time, Bahmer encouraged the installation of new and varying exhibits. Throughout his time as Archivist, exhibits covered political, historical, and contemporary events.

This includes exhibits on the commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, “The Making of a President,” and a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska.

Near the end of Bahmer’s tenure, both the number of visitors to the National Archives and reference service requests were increasing, proving that his efforts to reach audiences were successful.

Bahmer also served as president of the Society of American Archivists and as secretary general of the International Council on Archives.

In 1968, after a short but successful term as Archivist, Bahmer retired from the National Archives. He lived in Maryland for several years before moving to Las Vegas, NV, where he died in 1990 at the age of 86.

To learn more about Robert H. Bahmer’s life and career, read his biography on the National Archives History Office website.

Robert H. Bahmer’s Retirement Party, March 8, 1968. (National Archives Identifier 23855401)

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