Don Wilson: Embracing Institutional Independence

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
Portrait of Seventh Archivist of the United States Don Wilson which hangs in the National Archives Building. (Records of the National Archives)

Don W. Wilson was appointed seventh Archivist of the United States by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. He was the first Archivist to lead the newly independent National Archives and the first Archivist to be appointed by a President since Wayne Grover in 1948. Wilson’s appointment came after Acting Archivist Frank Burke served two years as head of the agency.

Originally from Kansas, Wilson earned his bachelor’s degree from Washburn University and his master’s and Ph.D. in history from the University of Cincinnati.

He began his career working in the history departments at the University of Michigan and Washburn University. He also worked as a research professor with the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University.

Wilson’s time at the Center for Presidential Studies served him well as he started at the National Archives at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library. In 1981 he became the first director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.

Dick Cheney administers the oath of office to Don Wilson with Mrs. Wilson and President Ronald Reagan looking on, December 4, 1987. (Records of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, National Archives)

He was then appointed Archivist of the United States in 1987 and served in that position until 1993. During these years, he led the agency through a period of growth and transition as it flourished as an independent agency.

Upon assuming office, Wilson stated that one of his goals as Archivist was to “plan, design, and develop archival facilities to meet the critical space needs of the National Archives for the 21st century.”

A step toward this goal was the start of construction on the National Archives at College Park, also referred to as Archives II. This facility, one of the most advanced archival facilities in the world and the biggest at 1.7 million square feet, increased the National Archives’ storage space exponentially and allowed for new preservation techniques.

Also during Wilson’s tenure, the National Archives Foundation was established. The Foundation is “an independent nonprofit that increases public awareness of the National Archives” and helps to support the National Archives Museum.

don wilson signing
Archivist Don Wilson signs the panel that was hoisted over the topping-out ceremony for the National Archives at College Park, 1991. (Records of the National Archives)

To further increase public awareness, Wilson established partnerships with various companies to educate the public on the vast holdings of the National Archives and teach people about the history of the United States.

He also advocated for electronic records preservation, an issue that was becoming more pressing as technology and Internet use increased. Preserving electronic records meant more information was available to the public. To help properly preserve these records, under Wilson’s tenure the National Archives published a yearly guide detailing changes in the standards of electronic records preservation.

Wilson is the only Archivist who has certified a constitutional amendment. In 1992 he certified the ratification of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution—202 years after it was originally submitted. The amendment prohibits a change in the salary of members of Congress from taking effect until the start of the next term.

Don Wilson Amendment Certification
Archivist of the United States Don Wilson signs the certification of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution., May 18, 1992. (George Bush Presidential Library, Don Wilson Collection, National Archives)

In 1993 Wilson resigned as Archivist and became the Executive Director of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, and later served as the President and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Library and Museum.

To learn more about Don W. Wilson, read his biography on the National Archives History Office website.

For more information on the ratification of the 27th Amendment, read the 2016 blog post “A Record-Setting Amendment.”

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