The History of NYC's History: Origins of the Municipal Archives

Storage room, Department of Records and Information Services. Undated photograph: Municipal Archives collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

WHEN WE THINK ABOUT THE PAST, how do we know what we know about it? Sure, someone can tell you that something happened, but what about events and actions that took place beyond the reaches of living memory?

For archivists, the answer to this question is simple: the documentary record. Our ability to authenticate what we know (or challenge what we think we know) about the past rests in the security, integrity, and accessibility of the archival record. And in New York City, as you may imagine, the written, photographic, and electronic records of all the iterations of City government, from European contact to the present, have been at serious risk of loss and destruction at various times in their history.

Prior to the early 1950s, New York City had no centralized archive to preserve and make available local government records.  New York State laws governed the practices of other municipalities, but New York City was exempt from those requirements. Although the Municipal Library had existed, as a unit of the New York Public Library, to collect, preserve, and make available government publications and reports, there was still no real program to address the collection of unpublished material produced by NYC government. The situation at the time of the creation of the Municipal Archives in 1950 was dire.

In 1900, as part of a major (and in some cases, first) attempt to understand what historical records were available in the United States, the American Historical Society established the Public Records Commission. Professor Herbert Osgood, of Columbia University, surveyed the records of NYC government as part of this survey. His findings, cited “neglect” and “loss” and described records in various offices “indiscriminately heaped together in a large pile on the floor and covered with dust.” His descriptions are enough to make any concerned citizen cringe (or cry).

Over ensuing decades,  various mayors tried to rectify the problem, ordering collections be kept by the New York Public Library, and making other ad hoc attempts at fixing the enormous problems facing the city’s historical records. Study after study confirmed the findings, but there were no comprehensive attempts providing for the sustainability of the archival records.

Rebecca Rankin, undated photograph, probably late 1930s. Rankin served as Director of the Municipal Reference Library from 1920-1952 and convinced Mayor LaGuardia and his successor, Mayor O'Dwyer, to establish an archives as part of the Library. Photo: Municipal Archives collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Cue, Rebecca B. Rankin, our agency’s heroine and the founding Librarian of the Municipal Library. As a result of her advocacy, Mayor La Guardia convened a committee in 1939 to deal with the issue. The Mayor’s Municipal Archives Committee took stock of the situation, finding that historical records were stored in over 2,000 locations, in “offices…basements, attics, piers, and bridgeheads.”  Crucial to Rankin and the Committee’s advocacy for a comprehensive records program was the finding that 20% of working space in municipal buildings in 1940 stored unused records. Then, as now, city real estate was not cheap. The result: In 1943, the City bought the Rhinelander building at 238 William Street for use as a central repository for government records.

In 1952, on the eve of Rankin’s retirement, the New York Times reported that moving to a central storage system had saved the City over $1,200,000 in storage costs since 1942. The Municipal Archives had begun. Archival material began to trickle in, and a system for taking in active city records was established. The archival collection, consisting primarily of the historical records of the Office of the Mayor, totaled only around 14,000 cubic feet at the outset (now it is around 225,000 cubic feet and growing).  In 1953, the center, still managed by the NYPL, was renamed the Municipal Archive and Reference Center (MARC).

The Hall of Records at 31 Chambers Street in lower Manhattan, mid-1980s. Photo: Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Hall of Records at 31 Chambers Street in lower Manhattan, mid-1980s. Photo: Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

However, the records program was beleaguered by lack of staff and lack of proper equipment due to a decrease in funding after World War II. The MARC was not functioning. Some agencies did not use the services that MARC provided, since they weren’t compelled by law to do so, and historic records of the City were spread among a variety of agencies, historical societies, and other libraries.

In addition, space at the Rhinelander was running out, as the MARC accumulated nearly 15,000 cubic feet of records per year. As the City attempted to grapple with the ever-increasing volume of records, plans were even made to refurbish the spaces in the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge to store the extensive records generated by the Office of the Comptroller. This odd plan was eventually deemed a stop-gap measure to a larger problem, and discarded.

Local law 49 established DORIS in 1977. The first page is pictured. NYC Municipal Library.

Mayor Lindsay eventually forged ahead, commissioning a Mayor’s Task Force on Municipal Archives in 1965. The Task Force presented their findings in a 1966 report that concluded: “New York City’s past, even its very recent past, is threatened with obliteration.”  The Task Force recommended the convening of a Public Records Commission to deal with the issues and, in 1968, MARC moved out of the purview of the NYPL and was established as part of the new Municipal Services Administration. The storage facility was also moved, from the Rhinelander building to 23 Park Row.

Enter the notorious fiscal crisis that besieged the city in the 1970s. Once again the MARC suffered from a lack of adequate funding and staff. In 1977, with yet more advocacy by Municipal Librarian Eugene Bockman and City Council President Paul O’Dwyer, local law 49 established the Department of Records and Information Services as a mayoral agency and provided capital funding to refurbish the Hall of Records at 31 Chambers Street. The law requires that the Archives “preserve and receive all city records of historical research, cultural or other important value.” Finally, New York City’s records were legally required to come to a specific agency, giving birth to a centralized recordkeeping system and protecting the integrity, security, and accessibility of New York City government’s historical record.