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.

Bringing Records Management to the Private Sector

By mid-1945 the outcome of the war seemed clear and Leahy began thinking about what he would do as a civilian. He decided to join the Microfilming Division of Remington Rand as National Microfilm Sales Manager. He soon found this work less fulfilling than he had anticipated so in 1947 he left Remington Rand and created the National Records Management Council, a non-profit records management service company. In his capacity as the President of the National Records Management Council Leahy chaired a task force on records management in 1948 - 49 for the Hoover Commission that identified enormous waste in the storage and duplication of paper records of federal agencies. He was the chief architect and advocate of legislation to establish a federal records management program to reduce this waste.

In 1953 Leahy left the National Records Management Council to head his own records management consulting business, Leahy & Co, and a records storage business called Leahy Archives, Inc. Through these two business enterprises he brought the full measure of his records management knowledge and experience to the private sector. Leahy & Co. and Leahy Archives became the pre-eminent records management consulting and records storage companies for the private sector with hundreds of clients, including Eastern Airlines, the Ford Motor Company, and Bethlehem Steel Corporation, among many others. Until his death in June of 1964 Leahy was the most prominent and widely recognized promoter of records management in North America.

The Emmett J. Leahy Records Management Legacy

Leahy had an expanding vision of records management. As an archivist on the staff of the National Archives he developed techniques to reduce the volume of public records and to segregate records of enduring value from those of temporary value. As Director of Records Administration for the Navy he established records centers for the storage of records no longer required for current business or storage and introduced standard paragraphs for repetitive correspondence.


The Records Management Task Force for the Hoover Commissions (1947 - 48 and 1950) that Leahy directed produced reports that exposed the waste and mismanagement of paper records by federal agencies. The Records Management Task Force also advocated the establishment of a federal records management program that resulted in the Federal Records Act of 1950.  


For more than a decade Leahy demonstrated that the tools and techniques used to promote work simplification and to reduce the volume of useless and duplicated records of federal agencies could be successfully implemented in the private sector.  


Several of Leahy's contemporaries have noted his remarkable ability to present powerful arguments to senior managers in behalf of records management. Part of this ability stemmed from his graphic descriptions of waste, duplication, and inefficiency in the way many records were being managed and how substantial cost savings could be achieved through the proper reduction of records and introduction of work simplification. Leahy made equally strong arguments in behalf of maintaining a corporate memory of business and government. In an article in The American Archivist entitled "Modern Records Management" Leahy declared that "Any destruction of records must provide maximum insurance that the essential core of recorded experience in the fraction of modern records is preserved."


In 1963 Leahy and Christopher Cameron co-authored a book on Modern Records Management. The concluding chapter of the book includes a discussion of "What Is Worthy of Permanent Preservation?" Two categories of business records, they wrote, merit permanent preservation. One category of permanent business records is evidence of corporate and individual rights. The second category of permanent business records "shed light of historical interest on the organization, functioning, and accomplishments of the company."


The defining characteristic of the records management legacy of Emmet J. Leahy is his ability to identify opportunities that technology brings to records management. In 1960, four years before his death, Leahy concluded an article entitled "Don't Keep It - Throw It Away" with a brief discussion of continuing improvement in records management. Closed circuit television opens up a whole new area of quick reference. Before long a records storage area will be piped right into headquarters office so that management and personnel will be able to view and discuss with the archives clerk any document in the files.


If Leahy had lived until the 1980s he would have discerned the impact of computer technology on records management and he would have led records management into new responsibilities and opportunities.


Leahy's career in records management ended on June 23, 1964 when he died a day after suffering a stroke but his records management legacy is being perpetuated through the Emmett J. Leahy annual award for outstanding contributions to information and records management.

What Leahy's peers had to say about him

There is no Leahy Archives Collection that documents Emmett J. Leahy's career as a records management practitioner, promoter, and visionary. Consequently, any in depth understanding of Emmett J. Leahy must be gleaned from memos, letters, reports, and publications in a variety of archives repositories.

An intriguing aspect of Leahy's career is what his archives and records management peers had to say about him and his work. The absence of a collection of Leahy documentation makes this somewhat problematic. However, oral history interviews, the identification of extant correspondence with Leahy or about him can help compensate for this absence. Below are four instances of what Leahy's peers had to say about him.   

Margaret Norton, Illinois State Archives (1953)

After her return from the 1953 Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists Norton prepared a written report containing observations about the meeting. Ed Leahy was not at the meeting and Ms. Norton noted:

  "No one seemed to know just what Ed. Leahy is 'up to.' He withdrew from the non profit National Records Council and formed a company of his own to give records management services. As Herbert Keller said, 'Ed is either an opportunist out to make big money or he sees something bigger and more comprehensively than the rest of us, and I have a hunch it is the latter.'"

Herb Angel, National Archives and Records Service (1965)

Herb Angel, who had worked with Ed Leahy in the Navy Department during World War II, published a two page "In Memoriam" essay in The American Archivist entitled "Emmett Joseph Leahy 1910-1964." Angel concluded his essay with this assessment:

       "Leahy's influence extended far beyond the Federal Government. Through his management consulting organizations he advised and assisted State and local governments, foreign governments, and numerous commercial clients. He lectured on records management at New York University and the University of California. He was active in the American Management Association, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Archivists. He was a charter member of the Society, served for a period as reviews editor of The American Archivist, contributed articles to this journal, as previously noted was active in committee work, and was elected a Fellow of the Society.

       "Far more could be said, but he will be remembered for two contributions. With his ambition, zeal, lively imagination, and a real flair for the dramatic, Leahy was for a quarter of a century, and in the best sense of the word, the foremost promoter of records management that the profession has ever known. His second legacy was his influence on his associates, whose loyalties he earned, whom he encouraged to develop and to apply their best talents to the task at hand, and who dozens of them – carry on today his crusade for better records management."

William Benedon (December 2006)

    I was teaching junior-senior high school in the 1947-1950 period and taking my master's degree at NYU in accounting and foreign trade. I selected as my thesis “The Preservation of Accounting Records” (I don't really know why). I felt I didn't really want to be an accountant but I wondered what such practitioners did with all their records. Bob Schiff, a senior officer in the National Records Management Council (NAREMCO) was teaching at NYU at the time, had read my thesis because of the title, and suggested I make an appointment to meet Ed Leahy, president of NAREMCO and discuss a fellowship with the organization. Thus started a long and happy career in records management, but the real inspiration was my first meeting with Ed Leahy

    I was impressed the moment I met him. He had an exciting gleam in his eyes, an award winning smile, and an air of dignity and knowledge. He immediately put me at ease with his relaxing approach to talking about me and my interests with his personal anecdotes injected as we went along. From that day forward I felt the confidence to make a mark in the records management profession. At the time Ed Leahy also operated the Leahy Business Archives (the first commercial records center system) and I spent the first six months as a records center clerk in that operation. Then I quickly graduated to consulting analyst and worked on projects at Union Carbide, Monsanto Chemical, the City of New York , Oneida Knitting Mills, and Mine Safety Appliances (my first solo operation). While I had the opportunity to work with such notables as Bob Schiff, Bob Weil, and Art Barken, Ed was always available for comments and concerns. He had a practice of taking his analysts out to lunch when they were in town at his favorite Irish restaurant on 23rd Street in New York . The purpose of such get-togethers was to make us feel a part of a great adventure into this exciting world of records management.

    I had the opportunity to attend many of Ed Leahy's speeches and accompany him on visits to company president's offices to talk about impending projects. Each trip was a learning experience and critiques that followed these meetings left long-range values for individual growth. I was continually impressed with his ease of presentation and ability to sell his ideas to all levels of management. I remember his telling me that 80% of records management was salesmanship, making certain your clients felt at ease by listening to them and taking their ideas into account. Salesman extrodinaire, you bet, and only in the most positive manner.

    With Ed Leahy as a mentor, success was guaranteed. He had the dedication, the personality, and the knowledge to inspire confidence and commitment. What better advocate could there have been to address the records management needs of business, government and industry.

Ben L. Oliver (July 2006)

Ben Oliver, who is the 1978 recipient of the Leahy Award, recently recounted his impressions of Ed Leahy. In 1945 Oliver was asked to take on the task of organizing a records management program in the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships. He had no experience in records management (he was 21 years old) so he contacted Herb Angel and Ev Allredge, who succeeded Leahy in running the Navy Records Management program, for advice and guidance. Later Angel and Allredge invited Oliver to attend a meeting where Ed Leahy was the featured speaker. During his presentation, Leahy declared that records management needed young blood with new ideas and Oliver felt that Leahy was speaking directly to him. At the conclusion of the meeting, Oliver spoke to Leahy and told him that he was taking on a records management project and he could use all the help available. Leahy told him that Angel and Allredge were excellent sources but that he would be delighted to discuss records management issues with him. He gave Oliver his telephone number and told him to feel free to telephone him at any time.

Oliver never felt it necessary to contact Leahy directly as he implemented a successful records management program at the Bureau of Ships. Later Oliver brought his records management expertise to the newly established National Archives and Records Service. At his retirement in 1975 "Ben Oliver probably was the best known and widely respected records management in the federal service.

Ben Oliver's brief encounter in 1945 with Ed Leahy was the only time he talked with him. Nonetheless, Oliver kept track of what Leahy was doing (largely through Herb Angel and Ev Allredge) and strived to emulate Leahy as a records management practitioner, promoter, and visionary. Being named the 1978 Leahy Award Winner was a fitting cap to Oliver's illustrious records management career that would have made Ed Leahy proud.