There were no drum rolls or fanfares, there was not even a presidential handshake in the Rose Garden when Robert M. Warner came to town last July 15 to take over as archivist of the United States.
How many people, after all, know or care that there is such a position? The selection advisory committee had beat the bushes for qualified candidates and come up with an embarrassingly small number who were interested. It took several months for General Services Administrator Rowland G. Freeman III, Warner's boss, even to learn how to pronounce archivist, to stop saying "ar-CHI-vist" instead of "AR-chi-vist."
And indeed, at first glance, the archivist's duties don't seem that challenging: making sure that no one walks off with the Declaration of Independence, holding onto 1.5 billion canceled Treasury checks for the statutory limit of six and a half years, helping amateur genealogists locate their great-great-great-grandfathers.
But Warner is not likely to see any dust collect on his desk at the National Archives. Shortly before he came to Washington, the Archives, that dignified citadel of permanence on Pennsylvania Avenue, was in an unseemly state of siege.
Freeman, the Archives' overseer, declaring that "the history of the country belongs to all of us, not just those of us who have access to the nation's capital," ordered hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of records taken off the shelves in Washington and shipped to regional centers around the country. Stunned researchers who rely on the central depository here said the dispersal would make their work far more difficult, even impossible.
In the cramped stacks on Pennsylvania Avenue and at luncheon tables up the block, demoralized staff members traded horror stories.
Along Mahogany Row on the main floor of the Archives, the institution's administrators went through the motions of trying to manage problems beyond their ken and control.
So serious had the crisis become that a group of scholars and historians across the country formed an "Emergency Committee to Preserve the National Archives."
Pulitzer prize-winning historian John Toland, a member of the Archives' advisory council and one of the most stinging critics of Freeman's proposals, said one day after listening to him: "This is the beginning of the end of the National Archives."
But the crisis had an interesting side effect: It focused attention on a government office (and cultural institution) that too often has been ignored or taken for granted even when its resources became pathetically unequal to its ambitious mission.
The agency was running out of space. Swamped by the flood of records that pour into the Archives every day (at last count there were 3.5 billion documents on file), desperate officials decided to store some of them in the empty Lansburgh's Department Store not far away. Unfortunately, the store was declared a firetrap.
The staff was being taxed with new chores. Within one week of the "Roots" TV mini-series, the Archives received 8,000 letters from roots-seekers, half of which required individual researching and answering -- all at the expense of other tasks.
Many records were disintegrating. The problem was not age (most of the documents were from the 20th century) but cheap paper that turns into dust as it acidifies.
When Freeman took office in early 1979, he was horrified by these and other problems, and immediately moved to change things. When Freeman wanted something done, he wanted it done fast. Things did not happen fast. Once, in exasperation at a closed meeting, Freeman shouted: "I'm not going to put up with this crap anymore."
And he didn't. But instead of trying to direct the Archives from his office on the other side of town, he hired Warner, the professor from Michigan.
While Warner, 52, is not exactly People magazine material, he is widely known among archivists. He is the former president of the Society of American Archivists and most recently he was director of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.
Still, one of his colleagues can say, "this is a grand step for him. He's never had a staff bigger than 30. Now he's got 2,500 people under him."
Most everyone thought that the mild-mannered Warner would be a patsy for the forceful Freeman. But outsider Warner is surprising the insiders.
Freeman's proposed dispersal program is now referred to in the past tense, to the immense relief of just about everyone. The alarmist gossip has subsided as Warner has sought out advice beyond Mahogany Row, among the toilers in the stacks.
There is a new team of administrators charged with rehabilitating the Archives and making it a first-rate cultural institution more accessible both to its specialized audiences and to the public. Public programs, once on Freeman's budget hit list, have been given a new status.
The Archives' advisory council, consisting of outside scholars, historians and archivists, is being reinvigorated.
Warner is giving higher priority to some previously fumbled missions, such as preserving the Archives' many perishable records and introducing more up-to-date technology in record-storing and retrieval.
The National Archives Assembly, formed by concerned staff members trying to protect their interests during the siege days, has been given Warner's blessing.
Ironically, Warner is doing many of the things that Freeman said needed to be done. But where Freeman liked to administer straight vinegar ("I'm used to giving orders," he told the advisory council last year) Warner is trying a little honey ("My arrival here does mean change," he told the staff at his introduction, but added "My work will be built on your work").
Warner has, you could say, given the job of archivist of the United States a new accent.