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Biography Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

9th Librarian of Congress 1939-1944

Archibald MacLeish

Writer and poet Archibald MacLeish was the first well-known figure from outside the library profession to be nominated and confirmed as Librarian of Congress. His achievements at the Library of Congress between 1939 and 1944 were many; he also was an eloquent spokesman on behalf of libraries and librarianship.  His chief accomplishments as Librarian of Congress were a thorough reorganization, development of the first explicit statements of the institution’s objectives (the "Canons of Selection" and a statement of reference and research objectives), and a concern for procedures and fairness that brought the Library’s administration and staff into accord for the first time in many years.  Furthermore, he permanently enlarged the role of the Library of Congress as a repository of the American intellectual and cultural tradition.  His contribution to the library profession centered on his frequently expressed belief that librarians must play an active role in American life, particularly in educating the American public to the value of the democratic process.

MacLeish entered public life for the first time at age of 47 when, on July 10, 1939, the local postmaster at Conway, Massachusetts administered his oath of office as Librarian of Congress.  Born in Glencoe, Illinois, on May 7, 1892, he attended Hotchkiss preparatory school in Connecticut before entering Yale in 1911.  After graduating from Yale,  where he was  elected to Phi Beta Kappa.  After entering  Harvard Law School, he served in the U.S. Army in France during World War I., then returned to Harvard, where he served as editor of the Harvard Law Review before graduating in 1919.  He gave up law practice with a prominent Boston firm in 1923 for Paris, where he established close ties with other American writers living on the Left Bank and published several collections of verse.  He returned to the United States in 1929, joining Henry Luce’s new Fortune magazine, for which he wrote articles on political and cultural subjects for the next nine years.  He continued to write verse and drama, the subjects reflecting his liberal social and political views.  Such opinions reinforced MacLeish’s intellectual sympathy with the New Deal and contributed to his departure from the Luce organization.  They also paved the way for his nomination as Librarian of Congress.

From the start President Franklin D. Roosevelt looked outside the library profession for a successor to Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam. In choosing MacLeish, Roosevelt followed the advice of his friend Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, who told the president that "only a scholarly man of letters can make a great national library a general place of habitation for scholars." The nomination was announced at a press conference on June 6, 1939, at which Roosevelt proclaimed that the job of Librarian of Congress required not a professional librarian but "a gentleman and a scholar."

The American Library Association, ignored in the nomination process, protested vigorously.  At its annual meeting in San Francisco on June 18, the ALA adopted a resolution opposing the nomination because "the Congress and the American people should have as a Librarian. . . one who is not only a gentleman and a scholar but who is also the ablest Library administrator available.  The ALA testified unsuccessfully against the nomination in the Senate hearings.  On June 29, 1939, by a vote of 63 to 8, the Senate confirmed the President’s choice, and MacLeish became the ninth Librarian of Congress.

When the new Librarian officially began work on October 2, the Library had a book collection of about 6 million volumes, a staff of 1,100, and, in fiscal year 1939, an appropriation of approximately $3 million.  The new Librarian immediately tackled the Library’s most pressing internal problems, launching studies of the Library’s cataloging, acquisitions, personnel, and budget policies.  The results were distressing, and MacLeish and his senior staff asked for a substantial increase in the Library’s appropriations to remedy the many problems: the request was for $4,200,000 and included 287 additional positions.  The Appropriations Committee approved 130 of the new positions and encouraged the new Librarian to continue his "industrious and intelligent" beginning. In response to the Appropriations Committee’s report and to continue the studies underway, on April 10, 1941, MacLeish appointed a special Librarian’s Committee to analyze the Library’s operations—especially its processing activities.  The report of the committee, headed by Carleton B. Joeckel of the University of Chicago’s Graduate Library School, served as a catalyst for MacLeish’s reorganization—a functional restructuring that served as the basis of the Library’s administrative structure for the next three years.

While the administrative reorganization was probably MacLeish’s most important achievement, it was only one of his accomplishments.  He also enhanced the Library’s reputation as a major cultural institution, not only because of his own prominence as a poet but also by inaugurating a series of public poetry readings.  He also brought many prominent writers and poets to the Library, including the war refugees Alexis Saint-Leger Leger (who wrote using the name Saint-John Perse) and Thomas Mann.  Distinguished poet Allen Tate came to the Library to occupy the Library’s chair of Poetry in English and to  serve as the first editor of a new publication, The Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of New Acquisitions.   Relationships between the Library and scholarly and literary communities were improved through a new program of resident fellowships for young scholars and the formation of the Fellows of the Library of Congress, a group of prominent writers and poets.

A wartime librarian, MacLeish quickly became a leading spokesman for the cause of democracy.  Speaking before the ALA on May 31, 1940, he asserted that librarians "must become active and not passive agents of the democratic process." People who had bitterly opposed his nomination a year earlier applauded vigorously, and relations between the Library and ALA were on the mend.

MacLeish and Luther H. Evans, his Chief Assistant Librarian, inaugurated a staff Information Bulletin and created a staff advisory committee.  In April 1942 MacLeish announced the formation of the Librarian’s Council, composed of distinguished librarians, scholars, and book collectors who would make recommendations about collection development and reference service.  Weekly meetings with department directors were started, and in 1943 the Library administration began holding informal monthly meetings with the professional staff.

During the war MacLeish helped President Roosevelt in many ways.  Those activities meant that he served only part-time as Librarian of Congress, which makes the many achievements of his administration especially remarkable.  In October 1941 the President asked him to assume, in addition to his duties as Librarian, supervision of the government’s newly established Office of Facts and Figures. In June 1942 the Office of Facts and Figures was combined with other agencies to form the Office of War Information, which MacLeish served part-time as an Assistant Director.  The Librarian also drafted speeches for the President and represented the government at various high-level meetings, as in March 1944 when went to London as a delegate to the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education, a forerunner of the United Nations.  MacLeish apparently indicated a wish to leave the Library of Congress as early as the summer of 1943, but he stayed in office until December 19, 1944, when he resigned to become an Assistant Secretary of State, in charge of public and cultural relations.

MacLeish’s relatively brief administration was one of the most fruitful in the history of the Library.  The accomplishments were not his alone; the Librarian was the first to acknowledge that his colleagues Luther H. Evans, Verner W. Clapp, and David C. Mearns played major roles.  The style, tone, and motivation, however, came directly from MacLeish.  He provided the Library and the library profession with inspiration and a sense of historical perspective.  His succinct statement of the Library’s purpose in the first issue of The Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions (1943) stands today as both a summary and challenge: "The first duty of the Library of Congress is to serve the Congress and the officers and agencies of government.  Its second duty is to serve the world of scholarship and letters.  Through both it endeavors to serve the American people to whom it belongs and for whom it exists."

Archibald MacLeish died in Boston on April 20, 1982. (JYC)


Benco, Nancy.  "Archibald MacLeish: The Poet Librarian," The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 33 (July 1976): 233-249.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress