Robert M. Warner (1927-2007)
Francis X. Blouin Jr. and Lew Bellardo, September 2007
Robert M. Warner, third director of the Bentley Historical Library and former Archivist of the United States, died on April 24, 2007, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, of heart failure due to complications from Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 79 years old. He was a professor of history at the University of Michigan, a position he held throughout a career focused on the administration of educational and cultural institutions. In each position he held over a distinguished career, he had an uncanny sense of working through a single key challenge that in every case led to the transformation of the institutions he served.
In 1957, while in graduate school at the University of Michigan, he took a position as assistant curator at the Michigan Historical Collections, a regional historical collection housed on the campus in the basement of Rackham, the university's graduate school building. In 1966 he was named the third director of the Michigan Historical Collections. He came to the job with a great interest in developing the holdings of the collections. However, as director he knew that the future of the historical repository depended on having a separate building that would give the program a distinct identity. During his tenure as director he worked tirelessly to raise private funding for such a structure. Through the generosity of the late Mrs. Alvin Bentley of Owosso, Michigan, and of many other citizens and organizations of the state, funding was obtained and in 1973 the Bentley Historical Library building was realized. As he predicted, the new building significantly increased the profile of the collection on the campus and in the nation.
In 1963, the Bentley Library began collecting the papers of a then obscure congressman from Grand Rapids, Gerald R. Ford. In 1974, with Ford's elevation to the presidency, his papers were transformed into presidential documents. Warner then turned his attention to securing the Ford Presidential Library for the University of Michigan. The challenges were substantial. Harvard had rejected the Kennedy Library and Duke had problems with the idea of a Nixon Library on its campus. Warner, noting the opposition on those campuses to the "monumental" role of presidential libraries, proposed that the Ford Library be divided into two structures. A museum would be built in Grand Rapids and the library, containing Ford's presidential papers and other administration records, would be built in Ann Arbor where they could be integrated into the academic programs of the university. The plan was accepted and realized in 1980, but never duplicated by other presidents.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Warner to be sixth Archivist of the United States. When he began his term of office, he used to say "that the problems were the same as the Bentley Library, just bigger." But they were considerably more complex. There were lingering issues regarding ownership of the Nixon Tapes. There were also severe budgetary and administrative challenges. The National Archives was then part of the General Services Administration (GSA), an agency with responsibilities for federal buildings, supplies and transportation among other management responsibilities. The GSA considered the archives a records management and storage operation. Warner found little appreciation in those circles for the scholarly and public work of the archives. Early on in his tenure, he became convinced that the National Archives needed to be an independent government agency. Because of federal rules, he could not lead the movement to separate the archives from the GSA. However, he vigorously encouraged and coordinated work by a number of historical, archival, and genealogical associations to achieve that end. On April 1, 1985, President Reagan signed a bill that removed the National Archives from the GSA and established it as a separate, federal agency called the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Warner told the remarkable story of achieving National Archives independence in a book called Diary of a Dream. In that book, he detailed the tremendous difficulties and complexities that threatened to block independence, and the behind the scenes acts of determination and courage by many that led to an independent National Archives.
Independence made it possible for the National Archives to grow and thrive. An independent NARA was able to have a significant impact on information policy in the federal government. With direct access to its appropriators, the National Archives obtained the necessary funding to build new archival facilities that met the highest standards in holdings preservation and to upgrade and renovate many of its other facilities. NARA also embarked on an ambitious research agenda in the area of digital records preservation, and received funding to develop the Electronic Records Archives (ERA), which will allow NARA to carry out its mission in the digital age. An independent National Archives also vastly increased its educational programs. Warner's tireless work made this progress possible.
In 2005, Allen Weinstein, the current Archivist of the United States, noted at the dedication of the Robert M. Warner Research Center in the archives building on the National Mall, that Warner had worked "tirelessly with literally hundreds of supporters within the archives and among our constituent groups, the Congress and the White House to make independence a reality. While there were many roadblocks in the way, Warner persevered and finally won."
With that accomplished, he returned to the University of Michigan to become dean of the School of Library Science. Though information technology was not his area of expertise, he readily saw that the school would need to adapt to advances in technology that were fundamentally changing the nature, creation, preservation and use of information as well as the practice of the library, archival and information professions. He also recognized that the school would need to adopt a more interdisciplinary approach, expand its scope, and forge strategic connections with other units of the university. He was instrumental in positioning the school to meet these challenges, and in paving the way for Daniel Atkins, a UM professor of electrical and computer engineering, to succeed him and realize the vision that eventually transformed the school into the School of Information.
Robert Mark Warner was born on June 28, 1927, in Montrose, Colorado, where his father, Mark, was a Presbyterian minister. In 1949, he graduated from Muskingum College, a Presbyterian school in Ohio, and then pursued advanced studies in history at the University of Michigan, receiving his PhD in American history in 1958. While at Muskingum he met Jane Bullock, whom he married in 1954. Mrs. Warner played a major role in all phases of his career. She died in August 2006. Warner is survived by son Mark Warner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Idaho in Moscow, his wife Amy, and two grandchildren, Thomas and Samuel; and by daughter, Jennifer Cuddeback, an archivist at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, and her husband Jim.
Warner was active in a number of associations and organizations. He was a former president of the Historical Society of Michigan, former president of the Society of American Archivists, and a former member of the governing councils of the American Historical Association and the American Library Association. For several years, Warner served as the secretary of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation. At the University of Michigan, while dean of the School of Library Science, he was the interim director of the university library for two years. In 1992, upon appointing Warner as university historian, UM President James Duderstadt told the Regents that "I believe the history of the University of Michigan could be in no better hands."
He considered achieving independence for the National Archives as his greatest professional accomplishment. When reflecting on the long complicated political and bureaucratic battle to achieve that goal, he always expressed a confidence and faith that change was a manageable process and could be accomplished through our political system. He concluded in his memoir on the experience, published in 1995, that independence for the National Archives "was a victory not only for ourselves and for the archives, but for our system of government as well."
—Francis X. Blouin Jr.
Bentley Historical Library
University of Michigan
National Archives and Records Agency