Waldo Gifford Leland and the Origins of the American Archival Profession

Edited by Peter J. Wosh. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2011. 398 pp.. $62.95 (paper). ISBN 978-1931666404.

Peter J. Wosh’s book, Waldo Gifford Leland and the Origins of the American Archival Profession, offers the archives scholar a renewed perspective on the development of American archival practices. Wosh edited the book, which consists of a series of documents that relay the genesis of professional archival work in the United States from the perspective of Waldo Gifford Leland. Though never a practicing archivist himself, Leland encouraged such elemental archival tenets as respect de fonds and provenance, which he learned in France conducting work for the Carnegie Institution. Wosh’s introduction is a brief biography of Leland that begins with his family’s mid-nineteenth century roots in Newton, Massachusetts and ends with a discussion of his legacy since his death in 1966. The chapters are arranged chronologically, and each document or set of documents focuses on a major event or idea in the progression of American archival practice, including the inaugural conference of archivists in 1909, the movement to found a national archives, and the role of archivists in wartime. Wosh briefly introduces each chapter, providing context for the documents and describing their significance.

The book is successful in providing a rich history of the American archival field from Leland’s heretofore mostly unexplored perspective. Though Leland is remembered through an annual Society of American Archivists writing prize and a portrait in the National Archives, his role in encouraging and shaping archives as a profession in the United States is often obscured by other, more prominent figures including T.R. Schellenberg and J. Franklin Jameson. In fact, Leland was a student of Jameson, and it was through work for his former instructor that Leland became involved in the archives field. The choice to tell the story through a series of documents allows the reader to get a sense of Leland’s highly formative position in developing the notions of archival best practice and the role of the professional archivist. Leland introduced European archival practice to the United States, advocated for the separation of archives from library and manuscript traditions, and described the necessary characteristics of an archivist. At times, however, the format of the book detracts from its cohesion, so that one is left wishing for more of Wosh’s voice, and perhaps also for documents from others involved in the events the book covers.

Nevertheless, during his career Leland had an active role in and an opinion about many aspects of archival practice, and as such, the multitude of topics in his writing in many ways makes up for the lack of other voices in the text. Leland wrote about early preservation through photography, appraisal theory, how archives should be constructed and maintained, archival training, and the role of the archivist. Reading Leland’s opinions one is privy to a comprehensive examination of early American archival practice. Throughout the book, one can find examples of how the profession has both changed and stayed the same since its American origins in the early twentieth century. Telling the story of archives in the United States through one man’s lifetime emphasizes the brevity of the American archival tradition, the ongoing instinct to find technological solutions to issues of preservation, and the profession’s deeply interconnected roots with the development of the modern historical discipline. Consequently, Waldo Gifford Leland and the Origins of the American Archival Profession is an enlightening and engaging addition to the study of the history of archives.

Eleanor Dickson, University of Texas