Happy Birthday Waldo!

This is the birthday of Waldo Gifford Leland, born this day in 1879 in Newton, Massachusetts.  He was a historian with careers at the Carnegie Institution and the Library of Congress, and played an important role in the creation of the National Archives.

Leland’s portrait hangs among those of the previous Archivists of the United States.  And I discovered him on a recent afternoon when I noticed that there were 10 portraits.  Counted them twice.  Thought maybe someone had made a mistake and I was number 11, not 10!

Waldo Gifford Leland portrait
Portrait of Waldo Gifford Leland, 1879-1966. From RG 64, Records of the National Archives
The portrait was dedicated on October 24, 1957.

Leland was a student of J. Franklin Jameson at Brown and Jameson’s mentee.  Leland took an early interest in archives, compiling the “Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington” and searching across the United States for the correspondence of the Continental Congress delegates.

In 1907 he presented a paper to the Columbia Historical Society in Washington stressing the need for a national archives—the beginning of his campaign for preserving the records of the country.  In 1909 he presented his paper, “American Archival Problems,” at the American Archivists Conference, which he helped organize.  In 1912 he wrote “The National Archives:  a Programme” which outlined the poor condition of the Federal records and the type of building needed.

Leland and Jameson joined forces in the campaign to create a National Archives and in 1926 Congress approved funds for the building and in 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt signed the legislation creating the National Archives.

In 1938, President Roosevelt tapped Leland to lead the committee planning his Presidential Library.

For his important roles, the Leland Portrait Committee was formed in 1956 to raise funds for a portrait to hang in the Archives building.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, assistant to Archivist Wayne Grover served as the secretary/treasurer of the fund which raised $2700, $1500 more than needed for the portrait.  The surplus was given to the Society for American Archivists to establish the Leland Prize.

At the unveiling of his portrait, Leland 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.  As Rousseau is reported to have said: ‘The man who rings the bell cannot march in the procession; and I admit to having rung the bell!”

Happy Birthday and Thank You, Waldo Gifford Leland.

3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Waldo!

  1. And, of course, as noted above, SAA has long shown the special place it holds for Leland with its highly prized Waldo Leland award. This award has long recognized “writing of superior excellence and usefulness in the field of archival history, theory, or practice.” It has been awarded to some of our most illustrious colleagues over the years going back to Theodore R. Schellenberg.

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