Fighting for Independence: Sixth Archivist Robert M. Warner

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 comes from Sarah Basilion.

Archivist Portraits
Sixth Archivist of the United States Robert Warner’s portrait, which hangs in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. (Records of the National Archives)

Dr. Robert M. Warner served as sixth Archivist of the United States from July 1980 to April 1985.

Originally from Colorado, Warner earned a bachelor’s degree from Muskingum University in 1949 and a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Michigan in 1958.

Before joining the National Archives, he worked as the director of the Michigan Historical Collections and chaired the planning committee of the Gerald R. Ford Library.

From the time of his appointment as Archivist of the United States in July 1980, Warner worked tirelessly to secure the National Archives’ independence from the General Services Administration. The National Archives had been placed within the newly created GSA in 1949 in an effort to make the government more efficient.

Immediately, archivists, historians, researchers, government officials, and many others protested this reorganization, stating that it prevented the National Archives from fully carrying out all of its responsibilities. They also claimed that placing a nonpolitical institution (National Archives) under one that made highly politicized decisions (GSA) created conflict.

The fight for independence continued for decades and reached a head when Warner became Archivist in 1980. Upon taking office, Warner began campaigning for Archives independence. He contacted members of Congress to gain their support and rallied support from other people and institutions in the archival field.

According to his book that recounted the fight for independence, he also “h[eld] secret meetings. A group of six dedicated staff members met regularly beginning in 1982, at first every couple of weeks and then daily near the end of the campaign [for independence]. They met to discuss their strategy in regards to Congress, the press, other allied agencies, and anyone else who might help their cause.”

Warner was dedicated to the cause.

S. 2852, Senator Morgan’s first attempt at securing an independent National Archives, June 19, 1980. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

In 1980 Senator Robert Morgan (D-NC) introduced the first bill to make the Archives independent of the GSA. Although the Senate never acted on it, the Morgan Bill was an important step in the right direction in the fight for independence.

It took four more years, but on October 19, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation once again making the National Archives an independent agency. Finally, the government recognized what so many in the archival field had been saying for decades: that the National Archives needed to be an independent agency to properly function.

Not only did Warner win the fight for independence, he also helped to transition the agency from its place within GSA back to an independent agency.

Warner led the National Archives through transition, including determining which functions GSA would continue to perform and which would now be completed by the new National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). He also assisted in restructuring NARA and consolidating records management programs into the new Office of Records Administration.

Warner left the National Archives in 1985 and returned to the University of Michigan, where he worked in the history department and the School of Information and Library Studies. He served as dean of the School of Information from 1985 to 2002.

National Archives Independence- NARA ndependence Act Ceremony 4_11-8-84
Archivist of the United States Robert Warner and Deputy Archivist George N. Scaboo at a ceremony in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, celebrating independence, November 8, 1984. (Records of the National Archives)

Throughout his career, Warner also served as the president of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the Historical Society of Michigan, and the Second European Conference on Archives. He also served on the boards of the American Historical Association, the American Library Association, and the SAA, where he was a distinguished fellow.

Dr. Warner was honored for his service and lasting contribution to the National Archives in 2005—the 20th year of independence from GSA—with the naming of the Robert M. Warner Research Center at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. A plaque commemorating the occasion hangs at the entrance to the Research Center.

Dr. Warner died in 2007 from cancer at the age of 79, but his legacy will impact the National Archives for generations to come.

For further information about NARA’s fight for independence, read this 2016 blog “An Independent National Archives.”

To learn more about Robert M. Warner, read his biography on the National Archives History Office website.

Plaque that hangs outside the National Archives Research Center in Washington, D.C., dedicated May 19, 2005. (Photo Courtesy of the National Archives History Office)

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