Bert Rhoads: Recordkeeper in Chief

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.

Archivist Portraits
Portrait of Fifth Archivist of the United States James “Bert” Rhoads which hangs in the National Archives Building. (Records of the National Archives)

James Berton “Bert” Rhoads joined the National Archives in 1952 as a microfilm operator, but soon headed down the professional track.

In 1966 he was appointed Deputy Archivist under Dr. Robert Bahmer. He replaced Bahmer as Archivist of the United States on May 2, 1968, after having served as Acting Archivist for nearly two months.

Rhoads’s tenure as Archivist saw massive changes within the National Archives, many of which increased the accessibility of the National Archives and its holdings.

He started the quarterly magazine Prologue, which saw its first issue published in spring 1969. He also expanded the regional archives system to solve the two-fold problem of needing more records storage space and increasing the public’s access to records.

Also during Rhoads’s tenure, the immensely popular miniseries Roots premiered. Roots, based on a book of the same name by Alex Haley, tracked Haley’s family history from the time an African teenager named Kunta Kinte was brought to America as a slave. The TV miniseries sparked an unprecedented American interest in genealogical records and attracted a large influx of family history researchers to the National Archives for the first time.

Archivist of the United States Bert Rhoads speaks at the July 4th celebration; Frank Burke is also pictured, July 4, 1969. (National Archives Identifier 23855887)

It was also while Rhoads was Archivist that the annual 4th of July celebrations, for which the National Archives is now known, began.

Though known as a shy man, Rhoads was an outspoken supporter of recordkeeping. He wrote extensively about the importance of saving records and the appropriate methods of records preservation, storage, and disposal.

He was recognized for his hard work by the General Services Administration, the agency that oversaw the National Archives at the time, with Meritorious and Distinguished Service awards in 1966, 1968, and 1979.

Rhoads retired from the National Archives in 1979. In 1984, he joined the faculty of Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, as a history professor and director of the Graduate Program in Archives and Records Management until 1994.

After his retirement from Western Washington University, Rhoads lived in Missouri to be closer to family. On April 7, 2015, Rhoads passed away at the age of 86.

Prologue magazine remains the flagship publication of the National Archives.

Archivist of the United States Bert Rhoads at a press conference for the publication of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs, 1933-1937, March 20, 1969. (National Archives Identifier 23855785)


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