Robert M. Warner, 79, who built a legislative consensus to wrest the National Archives from political control when he was its director, has died in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The cause was a heart attack April 24 after a yearlong battle with cancer, his son, Mark Warner, said.
From 1980 to 1985, Mr. Warner, as the sixth archivist of the United States, ran the archives, the depository for the nation's historical documents, from the Declaration of Independence to the Nixon tapes.
When he started the job, the archives was a division of the General Services Administration, facing severe budget and staffing cuts, and morale was low. Heads of the GSA were political appointees who did not need archival expertise and could be subject to the whims of presidents.
For example, a previous head of the agency had given President Richard M. Nixon control over access to his own White House materials. At the same time, there was a proposal to decentralize the archives and distribute them to several sites around the country, which archivists in the pre-digital age saw as a severe handicap to researchers.
Faced with all these difficulties, Mr. Warner sought to turn his institution into an independent federal agency, capable of requesting its own budget from Congress, rather than relying on executive-branch decisions. The archives, founded in 1934, had been part of the GSA since 1949.
"He mobilized groups behind the scenes," the current U.S. archivist, Allen Weinstein, said of Mr. Warner.
"He was an informal but passionate advocate for the independence of the archives," uniting members of Congress, journalists, and other people in Washington to push for independence, Weinstein continued.
Legislation turned the archives into the National Archives and Records Administration, and Mr. Warner retired from government service two weeks after it officially became a separate agency April 1, 1985.