From the 123rd Annual Meeting column of the October 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
Researching in the City that Never Sleeps
Dylan Yeats, October 2008
As a commercial, industrial, cultural, and financial center for well over 150 years, New York has drawn people and objects from all over the world into its orbit, and produced a lot of paperwork. The research resources in New York, like the rents, are enormous. The hundreds of museums, libraries, and archives in the city provide an unparalleled concentration of cultural objects and texts from all over the world. The numerous borough and neighborhood historical societies, community cultural centers, and museums, not to mention the vast municipal archives program, make New York one of the most documented cities ever.
The Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York maintains an online repository guide with a subject index for the archival collections in the city. Many of these repositories maintain onsite research libraries for studying and contextualizing their holdings and mount exhibits that can make scouting them out for a future research trip even more fun. Below are suggestions for archives that may be of particular interest to AHA members. Most should be open at the time of the annual meeting, but as always, be sure to check web sites and contact librarians and archivists in advance to schedule research visit.
The 44 million items and 16 million titles in the New York Public Library (NYPL) make it one of the leading research institutions in the world. The NYPL’s many research libraries mount exhibitions that complement their holdings, and entrance to the libraries and exhibits is free to everyone. The Humanities and Social Sciences Library houses extensive manuscript collections covering a large variety of individuals and institutions that make up the region’s history, as well as large holdings in rare books and visual culture. Free tours of the famous lion-flanked beaux arts building (at 5th Ave. and 42nd St.) and its galleries and majestic sunlit reading room are available (call 212-930-0830 or visit www.nypl.org/research for details). The Library for the Performing Arts (40 Lincoln Center Plaza, 212-870-1630, www.nypl.org/research) houses ephemera, interviews, audio and visual recordings, and manuscripts that document the production and circulation of dance, music, and theater, with an emphasis on Europe and the United States. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (515 Malcolm X Blvd., 212-491-2200, www.nypl.org/research) is the premier research collection on the African diaspora. Exhibits and tours of the library, including Rivers, an artwork dedicated to Langston Hughes and Arthur Schomburg, the collector and curator for whom the library is named, are also free.
At New York University, the Fales and Tamiment libraries (70 Washington Sq. S., 212-998-2500, www.library.nyu.edu) house large collections documenting the American left and labor movement, New York’s downtown avant-garde arts scene, and Irish American culture, the East Coast’s largest collections of Asian American materials.
The Butler Library at Columbia University (535 West 114th St., 212-854-7309, www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb) houses a large collection of oral histories, as well as many major manuscript collections documenting politics, literature, business, and education in New York and the United States, as well as the history and culture of eastern European émigrés to the area.
At Hunter College’s Wexler Library (695 Park Ave. at 68th St., 212-772-5151, www.centropr.org), the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños maintains the definitive collection documenting the history and culture of the Puerto Rican diaspora. The Davis Library at St. Johns University (101 Murray St., 212-277-5135, new.stjohns.edu) holds a large collection of insurance industry materials dating back over 200 years.
Community based archives not affiliated with universities also offer amazing resources. The Center for Jewish History (15 West 16th St., 212-294-8301, www.cjh.org) comprises five Jewish history organizations in one centralized location with exhibits, libraries, and large manuscript holdings documenting Jewish life all over the world. The Lesbian Herstory Archives (484 14th St. in Brooklyn, 718-768-3953, www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org) is home to the largest collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities in the world. This collection is entirely funded, staffed, created, and preserved by the community it serves.
New York is also home to many institutional headquarters that maintain archives of their own records. Institutions ranging from the J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Archives (1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, 212-552-8330, www.jpmorganchase.com) to the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives (250 West 57th St., 212-541-6230, www.woodyguthrie.org) have collections open to researchers. Institutional records, whether housed by a research repository or the organization itself, offer invaluable insight into a time and place. So, check your calendar and the Archivists Roundtable Repository Guide and make the most of your trip to New York. And remember that the special, discounted hotel rates are available to meeting registrants from December 30, 2008, through January 7, 2009.
—Dylan Yeats is a PhD student in U.S. history at NYU. He is an exhibit curator, certified archivist, licensed tourguide, and author of the visual essay “‘Yellow Peril’: Collecting Xenophobia,” published by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU where he was their first graduate assistant in archives from 2005 to 2007.