Emmett J. Leahy (1910-1964)

Emmett J. Leahy (1910-1964)

Emmett "Ed" Leahy's career as a pioneer and innovator in records management spanned almost three decades. He began his career as an archivist at the National Archives in 1935. Six years later he moved to the U.S. Navy Department as Director of Records Administration. After the war he worked briefly as National Microfilm Sales Manager for Remington Rand and 1948 he organized the National Records Council, a non-profit organization to promote records management. He also served as Chair of a Records Management Task Force for the Hoover Commission (1947 - 48). In 1953 Leahy left the National Records Council to found Leahy Business Archives, off-site repositories for records, and Leahy & Company, a records management consulting company. He managed both companies until his death in 1964.

The "Invention" of Records Management in North America

When Leahy joined the staff of the National Archives in July of 1935 records management as a discipline did not exist in North America. His first assignment was to a "committee of special examiners" whose task was to examine records presented to the Archivist as being without "permanent value or historical interest" that could be destroyed or otherwise disposed of. Leahy and his fellow "special examiners" soon realized that the absence of systematic management of records by federal agencies made it difficult to identify records of archival value. They concluded that archival involvement in the creation and filing of records, especially in terms of segregation of records of temporary value from those of archival value, was essential.

The National Archives initiated a records administration program to ensure that records of temporary value were segregated from records of archival value. A key concept in this program was the records life cycle in which records are created, used, and disposed either by destruction or transfer to the National Archives. Leahy played a major role in the development of this program. At the same time, he began to focus on the huge accumulations of duplicated or useless records that many federal agencies held. In 1938 he expanded this focus by undertaking a nine month trip around the world to study the "policies in the reduction of archival material of the more important European governments." In his report he identified the elements of a records reduction program that included:

  •     Continuing authorization for the destruction of past and future accumulation of approved lists of records
  •     Periodic transfer of records to central archives
  •     Scientific sampling and microfilming
  •     Insuring the integrity of valuable data
  •     Segregation of papers having no permanent value
  •     Prevention of excessive recording

Implementing A Modern Records Management Program

In September of 1941 Leahy had the opportunity to put his ideas into practice when he became the Director of Records Coordination for the Navy in the Office of the Secretary of Navy. He immediately began to organize a program of records administration that incorporated elements of records reduction he had articulated earlier. This program required a staging area where records could be sent from operational units while they were being reviewed for disposal. This along with a growing demand for storage space for essential war material and supplies led to the development of the records center concept, which was the first such in the world. Under Leahy's leadership Navy records centers were opened in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and California, and Hawaii.

Leahy recruited a microfilm specialist to implement a program to reduce the volume of paper records by filming them and destroying the originals. Recognizing that microfilm could be used to reduce the volume of engineering drawings, Leahy organized a program to microfilm engineering drawings of submarines, destroyers, battleships, and aircraft.

Leahy also focused his attention on work simplification through the elimination of unessential duplication of records and inefficient performance of essential functions of the Navy. To address unessential duplication, he initiated a survey of forms used in the Navy that identified one thousand two hundred and forty-eight reports or forms that could be eliminated or modified. Leahy also believed that records creation could be more efficient if form letters were used to answer repetitive correspondence. Leahy implemented a program called Correspondex that consisted of standard paragraphs that could be adapted as needed and then typed.