The First Guide to Federal Records

The United States has been accumulating records since the first meeting of the Continental Congress in 1774. As the government grew, the paperwork it was creating grew too—exponentially. But until 1934 there was no national archives to consolidate the papers, so each government department, bureau, or office retained custody of its own records. Some official records such as acts of Congress, treaties, and constitutional amendments were sent to the Department of State, and other governmental papers went to the Library of Congress. 

Because recordkeeping practices weren’t consistent across government, records were often hard to locate. In the late 19th and early 20th century, historians in the U.S. began a concerted push for better preservation of federal records for the purpose of making them available to scholars who needed them for research purposes. 

But what records were out there? Historians had no idea. No one did. There had never been a survey of existing federal government records. In 1903 the Carnegie Institution of Washington attempted to correct that oversight and agreed to fund a project to create a guide to the government’s records in the Washington, DC, area. 

Historian Claude H. Van Tyne led the project with the assistance of Waldo G. Leland. Leland was at the very beginning of his career then and had received his M.A. in history from Harvard University a few years earlier. The two men’s purpose was to gather information on the location of important historical records, figure out how they are stored and arranged, and provide limited descriptions of the material for intended use by the historical community. 

As the men undertook their work, they surveyed branches, bureaus, and divisions of the federal government in Washington, DC, and gathered a massive amount of data to basically create a large bibliography of archival sources. 

They also made some determinations on the types of records they were finding and divided them into two categories: historically useful and administrative. They found historically useful records tended to be more complete, organized, and accessible. The administrative records—documents that dealt with the actual administration of government—were less complete, organized, and accessible. Unlike the historically valuable records, which were almost all worth keeping, these administrative files were a mix of materials of permanent value but also a lot that could be discarded. Determining what to keep and what not to keep would form part of the basis for archival theory moving forward.

But compiling the information was not easy. They surveyed nearly 20 government departments, but under those were hundreds of bureaus and offices and even more divisions and branches under that. They also included the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, Supreme Court, the House of Representatives, and the Senate.

The material they consulted was scattered all over the city. They found no consistent method of organization; existing indexes were usually outdated; and there was little regard to storage conditions. Nonetheless, the small team of researchers were able to complete their work and in 1904 published The Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington.

The book is organized into chapters based on the different departments and agencies. In addition to descriptions of the historic collections, the authors also included a history of the particular department or agency, its duties, methods of work, and mode of their recordkeeping practices. While the authors couldn’t estimate how many records were in federal custody—the number was just too vast— they included as much general information about the individual collections of records as possible.

The guide was lauded as the first comprehensive list of records held by the federal government. Leland also did the legwork for it to be expanded and reprinted in 1907—this second printing became critical reading for anyone researching government records for decades to follow.

Leland then spent the remainder of his career developing and honing his thoughts on archival theory. He was also instrumental in the creation of the National Archives, which finally occurred in 1934.

When the agency undertook its own survey of federal records in the mid-1930s, examiners relied heavily on Leland’s guide and methods. The records they brought in laid the foundation of the National Archives’ holdings today, and Leland’s archival theories and practices were used and adapted by generations of archivists for years to come.

Learn more in Waldo Leland: Founder of the National Archives.

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