Waldo Leland: An archivally-slanted biography

Among this crowd, Waldo Gifford Leland may be best known as a defining figure responsible for shaping ACLS as Director, 1939-1948 and Executive Secretary, 1927-1939. You can read more about Leland on The Collection page. But Leland was also deeply invested in contributing to the archives field as an advocate, historian, archival theorist and all around mover and shaker! A prolific and influential voice, it’s difficult to secure a diploma in the Archives and Records management field without reading some of Leland’s pieces (I’m speaking from experience)!

This post will focus on (some of) Leland’s contributions to the field of archives and provide some unique insight for researchers focused on the history of archival institutions.

Part I of ACLS’s manuscript materials contains Waldo Leland’s personal papers, which should be intriguing for anyone interested in his vast professional accomplishments, correspondence files and other records. You can find out more about Part I of the collection on the Information for Researchers page.

Part II of ACLS’s manuscript materials includes numerous boxes that contain articles authored by Leland, writing about Leland including some biographical sketches, and correspondence about Leland. Much of his published archival writing can be found in American Archivist, the official journal of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). In a 1962 address found here, Leland complimented the journal on many counts. My favorite remark:

…For all these excellent contributions, even though I may not understand some of them, I am proud of the United States, which, once the last in this domain, is now probably the first.

Leland was a crucial voice in advocating for archives profession in the U.S. He was recognized by serving 2 terms as SAA President in the 1940s. With Presidential addresses including “The Archivist in Times of Emergency” and “Historians and Archivists in the First World War,” Leland set the stage for a professionalization of the field. Today, there’s even a  prestigious SAA award given in his honor.

Archival Accomplishments: The Big 3

Leland made considerable contributions to the field of archives over the years, but three are normally recognized as the most significant and set him on his way to becoming an influential figure in archival history today.

First, Leland conceived of the first Conference of Archivists in the U.S. In 1909, a group of archivists met at Columbia University in conjunction with the American Historical Association’s annual meeting. If you’re wondering if Leland had the time to write about the Conference, the answer is yes! You can find his 1950 article about the Conference here. He used the meeting to introduce archival concepts popular in Europe that would soon be adopted and institutionalized into domestic archival practices. Chances are, if you’re a practicing archivist, you’ve been impacted by his best practices or theory in your daily work. The next year, in 1910, Leland led a delegation of Americans to the first International Congress of Archivists and Librarians in Brussels. And thus was born a flourishing global exchange and influence in the profession.

Second, Leland played an instrumental role in the establishment of the National Archives and Records Administration (1934). Yes, that National Archives! Leland’s dreams were not too shabby! Leland’s portrait also hangs in the grand stairwell of the National Archives, along with only 4 other portraits. In a draft letter in Part II of the ACLS collection, one author writes:

…Leland produced…some of the most important promotional literature to advance the archival cause.

Along with John Franklin Jameson (who you can read more about below), Leland lobbied congress to allocate funds to build the National Archives in 1926. But, first he worked hard to prove the need for an archival repository that housed materials born of nationally-historic moments. As historian Rodney Ross listed:

Leland called attention to the value of America’s governmental records; surveyed the deplorable conditions of their storage; compared the American situation to that in enlightened quarters in Europe; offered a remedy, both as to the type of building needed and as to the form and responsibilities of an agency that could best meet the nation’s archival needs; addressed the subject of the destruction of relatively worthless records, thereby putting in a plug for records scheduling; and emphasized the necessity of adhering to the principle of respect des fonds (Ross 1983).


From that experience came a friendship with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who signed the National Archives Act in 1934 and Leland’s thrust further into the national spotlight.

Third,  Leland authored the landmark Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington (1904), which can be found in electronic format courtesy of Hathi Trust here.

With technology today, providing a comprehensive guide to the archival holdings in federal agencies in Washington, D.C. may seem redundant. You can easily peruse repository websites to learn about their collecting areas, view digitized copies of photographs and documents, or find their online finding aids like these at the Library of Congress. But, for the time, the work by Leland and his co-author Claude Halstead Van Tyne made archives more accessible to researchers and provided a wider public an opportunity to learn about the cultural and historical heritage of the country.

The Guide includes descriptions of holdings from:

  • Department of State
  • Treasury Department
  • Department of War
  • Department of Justice
  • Post Office Department
  • Navy Department
  • Department of the Interior
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Commerce & Labor
  • Civil Service Commission
  • Interstate Commerce Commission
  • The Smithsonian Institution
  • The Supreme Court of the United States
  • Court of Claims
  • House of Representatives
  • Senate
  • Library of Congress

Thank you to the Library of Congress Geography and Maps Division for allowing me to finger through a hard copy edition of Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington.

Colleagues: Getting by with a little help from his friends

Leland wrote countless articles about the profession and the leaders who transformed it.

In 1953, he wrote a personal essay about R.D.W. Connor, the first archivist of the United States with whom he had a “dear friendship.” You can find it here. He wrote:

In these and all other ways Robert Connor accomplished his grat national task with success and honor. Considering the man he was, this does not surprise us, but our gratification is none the less complete.

He also wrote about John Franklin Jameson in a 1956 article found here, who Leland met while at the Carnegie Institution. Together, they successfully lobbied Congress to create the National Archives, for which funding was secured in 1926. Of Jameson, he remarked:

But a chief factor in Jameson’s success was his own personal character, his total absence of self-seeking, his reputation and prestige as a scholar, and his patient and tactful persistence.

Archival History: What is past is present

Leland contributed to the archival movement and archival practices. In 1955, the National Archives published excerpts of his work. On “Public Obligation to Care for Archives,” Leland proclaimed:

…This is recognized in all civilized countries, as to neglect properly to perform this function is not only unbefitting the dignity of a great state, but it endangers an inheritance which future generations have a right to demand shall pass to them unimpaired. (Report on the Public Archives and Historical Interests of the State of Illinois, 1913)

In the letters that accompany the leaflet are correspondence about the Lewis and Clark papers!

At a 1949 American Historical Association meeting, Leland spoke:

This relationship is proudly acknowledged on both sides and it is of great importance that it be maintained and strengthened. The archivist must, it is true, deal with a vast number of technical problems, but he must not, because of that necessity, become a mere technician. The ultimate purpose of the preservation and efficient administration of the public records goes far beyond the improvement of administrative processes and the facilitation of the public business. The ultimate purpose is to make it possible for our present generation to have enduring and dependable knowledge of their past, of which our present is a part. To achieve this ultimate purpose the necessary technical and administrative processes must be controlled by the scholar, and it is in the high ideals and purposes of scholarship and in its concern for the public good that the archivist must find his motives and seek his inspiration.

A kind of impassioned battle cry, Leland challenged archivists to master the skill sets required in the field, but to move beyond those skills in order to engage our collective history while maintaining a focus future generations.

Dig in: How researchers can use these materials

Perhaps ahead of his time, Leland saw the intersection of archival work, the humanities, philosophy and the field of social sciences. Much of his writing that advocates for archival education also engages questions of responsibility and cross-disciplinary teaching (if not in those words). In 1948, while he was a public face for archives and the Director of ACLS, he wrote “Education for Freedom and Responsibility” where he commented:

The humanities have also recognized the importance of the intensive study of ideas, of their inception, rise, dominance, and decline, and of their influence on human history.

For researchers interested in the confluence of disciplines and how they played out in organizational setting, the ACLS collection (especially Part I) may be an exciting place to start. Or for researchers focused on the history, exchange and interaction among certain organizations may find rich materials in both Part I and Part II of the ACLS collection. Finally, for those historians of the archival profession, digging through Waldo Leland’s correspondence, drafts of published work and notes could be helpful in identifying the many hats he wore and how his vision shaped the way we access and understand our cultural heritage.

3 thoughts on “Waldo Leland: An archivally-slanted biography

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