Dr. Oliver W. Holmes, 79, a historian and archivist who was executive director of the National Historical Publications Commission for 10 years before retiring in 1971, died of arteriosclerotic heart disease Wednesday in his home in Washington.

The Commission operates through the National Archives and supports the publication of the papers of notable figures in American history. During his years as executive director, Dr. Holmes oversaw the beginning of a grants program, combining government and private funds, to accomplish publications projects.

Dr. Holmes came to Washington in 1936 when he began a 25-year career with the National Archives. During his years there, he served as chief of Interior Department Archives, director of research and records description, and chief of its Natural Resources Branch.

From 1957 to 1964, he was a member of the faculty at American University where he taught courses on the history and administration of archives. He was president of the Society of American Archivists in the late 1950s, and was a member of the Western Historical Association and the Agriculture History Association. He also was a member of the Cosmos Club.

He was a 1981 recipient of the distinguished service award from the Association for Documentary Editing.

He was an authority on the history of the country's westward movement, and the Smithsonian Institution plans to publish a collection of pieces written by Dr. Holmes on the history of the stagecoach in America.

Dr. Holmes was a graduate of Carleton College in his nativeMinnesota, then earned master's and doctoral degrees in history at Columbia University. While living in the New York area, he worked for the New York Public Library and contributed articles to Encyclopaedia Britannica and historical reference works published by Columbia University's press.

His wife, Dr. Dorothy Behner Holmes, a Washington ophthalmologist, died in May of this year.

Dr. Oliver Holmes' survivors include a daughter, Helena Morrisson of Honolulu; a son, Benson, of Omaha, Neb., and five grandchildren.