Leland received his B.A. in sociology from Brown and M.A. in history from Harvard. Leland moved to France in 1907, where he served as the principal representative of the Carnegie Institute of Washington. While in France he began work on his exhaustive Guide to Materials for American History in the Libraries and Archives of Paris. He also supervised the copying of French manuscripts relevant to the United States for inclusion in the Library of Congress. He served as the American delegate to the International Congress of Historical Sciences in 1908 and 1913. In 1909, Leland helped to organize the first Conference of Archivists and gave its keynote address. That same year, he was hired as general secretary of the American Historical Association (AHA).

In 1919, Leland served as organizing secretary of the American Council of Learned Societies, a group of six national scholarly organizations convened to represent the US in the International Academic Union. In 1927, he returned to his role after the society had grown to include twelve national professional scholarly organizations and received a major grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to provide for full-time administration. Leland transitioned to a role as director from 1939 to 1946. His leadership developed the ACLS from a loose constellation of twelve organizations recommending projects for foundation support to a stable federation of twenty-four societies with its own programs in support of scholarship. His major projects at the ACLS included sponsoring the publication of The Dictionary of American Biography (1927-1936) and the Handbook of Latin American Studies, which appeared beginning in 1935. Leland’s fundraising enabled the ACLS to distribute grants directly to scholars and to fund academic conferences. The ACLS was especially active in encouraging the development of regional area studies, including programs focusing on China, Japan, India, Iran, the Slavic countries, the Near East, and Latin America. The first volume of his Guide to Materials concerning material in libraries, appeared in 1932, and the second, on papers in the archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 1943. The final three volumes were never published, but the unfinished manuscripts are housed in the Leland papers at the Library of Congress.

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