How the National Archives Became NARS

On June 19, 1934, the National Archives was created as an independent agency. But just 15 years later, on June 30, 1949, Congress passed legislation moving the National Archives to the newly created General Services Administration (GSA) and renamed it the National Archives and Records Service (NARS). Today we’re looking at the events that led up to that move.

In 1947, Congress created a Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch, more commonly known as the Hoover Commission. The bipartisan commission was led by former President Herbert Hoover and tasked with improving the organization of the executive branch and making it more efficient. It was a broad mandate, and its actions were far-reaching. 

Originally, the issue of records management was not on the Commission’s radar. However, Assistant Archivist of the United States Wayne Grover, and others, recommended to the Commission itself that they look into the issue. Specifically, Grover asked these four questions: 

  • Where did staff responsibility for records management lie in the federal government?
  • What were the respective responsibilities of staff agencies and of the operating agencies?
  • Should there be a new General Records Act?
  • What was the proper role of the intermediate record storage center?

In April 1948 the Commission contracted with the National Records Management Council to create a task force on records management. Former National Archives staff member Emmett J. Leahy, now Executive Director of the Council, led the task force and was the principal author of the report the task force ultimately produced. 

Leahy enlisted the help of Herbert Angel, then-Director of the Navy’s Office of Records Management; Edward Wilber, from the Department of State; Wayne Grover, Assistant Archivist of the United States; and Frank M. Root, archivist of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. When Grover became Archivist of the United States in June, Assistant Archivist Robert Bahmer took over for Grover.

For people concerned with archives, the task force’s recordkeeping left a lot to be desired. Their records contain minutes of just one meeting, but contemporary accounts indicate the task force met several times, albeit informally in mostly brainstorming sessions. Leahy then took the information and wrote the task force’s recommendations, which became known as the Leahy Report.

While it had serious methodical issues, the Leahy Report was successful in drawing attention to the scale of the records management problem facing the U.S. It said that making and keeping federal records were the “greatest consumers of salaries, space, and equipment of all the housekeeping or service activities of the federal government.” Further, the report continued, federal records were being managed in an unnecessarily expensive and inefficient way. One estimate indicated the government held 18.5 million cubic feet of federal records and spent more than $1.2 billion annually on making and keeping records. 

Ultimately, the task force made two major recommendations—to establish a federal records administration and to pass federal records management legislation. The first recommendation was highly controversial for many reasons but mainly because Leahy proposed that whatever new federal records administration was to be created, the National Archives should be part of it.

Many National Archives staff did not agree with this and feared that incorporating the National Archives to a federal records administration would make it merely a housekeeping agency, and their work as a cultural institution would be severely hampered or cease altogether. Others though, thought the National Archives would be better under a larger umbrella agency, hoping it would improve their dismal staffing and appropriations levels.

On January 28, 1949, Archivist of the United States Wayne Grover wrote to Hoover basically saying that any centralized control of record management activities would best be performed within the framework of the National Archives and a new federal record administration was not needed. He was not successful though, and when the Hoover Commission reported on the creation of a general services agency in February, they advocated incorporating a federal records administration in the new office of general services.

In March, the Commission asked all departments and agencies that may be affected to provide comments and recommendations. Grover sent his comments to the Director of the Bureau of the Budget on March 21, strongly opposing the National Archives being incorporated into an Office of General Services, arguing that the National Archives should not be regarded as a housekeeping agency.

Nonetheless, the final Hoover Commission Report called for the creation of a Records Management Bureau in the Office of General Services, to include the National Archives. Other recommendations included the enactment of a new federal records management legislation to provide for more effective preservation, management, and disposal of the government’s records, and the establishment of a records management program in each federal department or agency. 

Both the House and the Senate introduced bills addressing the many Hoover Commission recommendations that were put forth. The Hoover recommendations on records management and moving the National Archives into GSA was incorporated into a bill on improved property management.

On June 30, 1949, Congress passed, and President Harry S. Truman signed, the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act, which transferred the National Archives to the newly created General Services Administration effective July 1, 1949. Because the Archives had gained new responsibilities for current records, its name was changed to National Archives and Records Service (NARS). All functions of the Archivist of the United States, with a few exceptions, were transferred to the Administrator of GSA. Moving forward, the Administrator appointed the Archivist of the United States, not the President of the United States, who had appointed all previous Archivists.

The following year, Congress enacted the other major recommendations of the task force when it passed the Federal Records Act of 1950. This act consolidated the previous legislation related to the National Archives; gave more authority to GSA with regard to records’ creation, storage, use, and disposition; authorized the Administrator to inspect agency’s records management programs; and tasked GSA to create records centers for storing, servicing, securing, and processing records that must be preserved for a period of time. The GSA Administrator delegated most of these responsiblities to NARS.

The National Archives and Records Service existed under GSA until April 1, 1985, when the National Archives and Records Administration was established—who we are today. Once again the National Archives became an independent agency with the Archivist of the United States appointed by the President. 

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One thought on “How the National Archives Became NARS

  1. From page 9 of The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 10, 1949:

    When the National Archives recently was placed under the General Services Administration, there was some disgruntlement among national archives [uncapitalized] employes [employees] who feared that some of the agency’s minor jobs would be given to other GSA bureaus.

    Subsequent to the merger, Jesse Larson, the GSA administrator, offered a $25 prize for a name for the new GSA news bulletin. One contestant, suspected of being one of the disgruntled national archives employes, submitted this entry:

    “Petty Larsonry”

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