Waldo G. Leland: A Founder of the National Archives

Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock from the National Archives History Office.

Archivist Portraits
Waldo Leland Portrait. (Records of the National Archives)

In the hallowed halls of the National Archives you’ll find portraits of the distinguished line of Archivists of the United States. They almost seem to look back at you with a sense of pride in the legacy they’ve established in preserving and making records accessible to the citizens of this great nation.

But one among them is an exception. He is not a member of that storied line of Archivists, but his contributions are supreme nonetheless.

The portrait is of Waldo Gifford Leland (1879–1966).* His resume is long and impressive: historian, surveyor of archival repositories in the United States and France, archival theorist, head of the American Council of Learned Societies, and patron of the American Historical Association’s Conference of Archivists.

But his most distinguished accomplishment is his successful contribution in the creation of the National Archives.

Leland was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1879, to parents who were public school educators. After graduating from Brown University, he studied at Harvard, where he switched his studies from sociology to history, earning his M.A. Although later he was addressed as Dr. Leland, the doctorates he received from various universities were all honorary.

1907 van Tyne-Leland Guide - Title Page
Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington, 2nd ed., 1907. (Records of the National Archives)

Leland’s first opportunity to acquire the expertise he would later sharpen was in 1903, when he and Claude H. Van Tyne compiled the Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington with a grant made to the Library of Congress. The funds came from the newly created Carnegie Institution of Washington, an organization for which Leland would align himself for 24 years.

In 1907 the Carnegie Institution of Washington sent him on a mission to Paris to find and duplicate American history research materials that were held in European repositories. For the next several years, he spent most of his time in Europe until World War I interrupted his mission. He eventually returned to Paris in 1922, and during his time there authored a guide to research materials in Paris.

His interaction with leading archivists throughout Europe made a lasting impression—he believed Americans needed to move away from prevailing library and historical society practices to develop a practical archives tradition. He based his theories on the Dutch manual (an 1898 manual by three Dutchmen defining archival principles) and promoted those concepts in the United States.

Leland shared these ideas and concepts at the American Historical Association annual meetings by securing acclaimed guest speakers. He also introduced the principles of provenance and original order to American audiences, pushed for formal training in history and law for archivists, and encouraged colleagues who shared his enthusiasm to produce an English-language manual that could compete with the Dutch manual for professionals in the United States.

When Leland arrived in Washington, DC, he became immersed in the allure of archival work. His daily discoveries in Federal offices included long-forgotten and neglected letters from Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin and the Papers of the Continental Congress.

In a letter to his mother, Leland wrote:

I have rummaged around in documents till I feel like one of them. . . . All around the rooms are closets and in those closets are documents, bound for the most part but many tied in bundles, or put in boxes, or in some cans, lying around loose and crumpled.

Leland joined in petitioning Congress to establish a national archives and provided sturdy support for it in an essay, “The National Archives: A Programme,” which rebuked Congress for neglect and apathy toward the official records of the national government. He also provided a template for what was required through his recent survey and guide, and spoke before the American Historical Association’s Public Archives Commission on “Some Fundamental Principles in Relation to Archives.”

When Congress finally authorized the National Archives on June 19, 1934, Leland, in characteristic fashion, humbly eschewed any credit for its creation.  

Afterward, Leland served as an unofficial adviser to successive Archivists of the United States and remained interested and engaged in the ongoing developments, whether they involved Presidential libraries or archival theory. And fitting his good humor and affable demeanor, at the unveiling of his portrait at the National Archives, he remarked:

My lack of success in managing my personal records convinces me that I would have been a very poor archivist, but I have enjoyed telling others how records should be managed.

Leland died of cancer in Washington, DC, on October 19, 1966. He was 87.

For more information on Waldo Leland read the AOTUS blog, Happy Birthday Waldo!

*As of 2022, Waldo Leland’s portrait is no longer hanging in the National Archives Building.

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