Rebecca Rankin

Rebecca Rankin at her desk, ca. 1939. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we are reminded of the remarkable Rebecca Rankin and her essential role in the development of the Municipal Library and establishment of the Municipal Archives. Rankin served as Municipal Reference Librarian from 1920 until her retirement on June 30, 1952, the day the Municipal Archives and Records Center—long championed by Rankin—was officially opened.

Born in Piqua, Ohio, near Dayton, in 1887, Rankin received her librarian training at Simmons College, Boston. A vacation trip to New York City in 1918 turned into a job at the New York Public Library. In January 1919 Rankin took up a position as second-in-command at the Municipal Reference Library (then a branch of the NYPL) and within a year, she was named the Library’s Director. The Municipal Library had been founded in 1913 when cities around the country established special libraries to educate citizens and policy-makers about their local governments. As the Library grew, its very informative serial publication, Notes, circulated around the country.

Rebecca Rankin, giving an address on WNYC radio, September 14, 1934. Photograph by Eugene de Salignac. Department of Bridges/Plant & Structures Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Barry W. Seaver, a former librarian at the Municipal Library and author of the indispensable and thorough Rankin biography, A True Politician (McFarland & Co., 2004), describes her commitment to Progressive Era principles as exemplified by the Library: “She believed strongly in providing the citizens of New York with information to enable them to take advantage of the services of the local government." During her thirty-two year career she more than lived up to that ideal, with dozens of articles, speeches, lectures, books, and more than three hundred radio programs airing on WNYC. 

With the election of Fiorello LaGuardia in 1933, Rankin found in the new Mayor someone who shared her belief in educating citizens about their government. Earlier in her career she had helped LaGuardia when he served as President of the Board of Aldermen. After he became Mayor, she quickly renewed her friendship and welcomed his numerous and frequent requests for information.

Rebecca Rankin presenting Mayor LaGuardia with the first copy of of her book New York Advancing during a ceremony on the steps of the New York Public Library, 1936. Rebecca Rankin Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Rankin's 1936 book New York Advancing was a surprise best-seller. NYC Municipal Library.

In 1936, with LaGuardia’s encouragement, she published her first book, Guide to the Municipal Government of the City of New York. And at LaGuardia’s request she authored what would become a best-seller, New York Advancing—a description of the financing, organization and planning involved in running New York. Telephone orders for copies of the book (@ $1.00 each), poured in at a rate of 500 per day after its release on September 10, 1936. It was re-issued in 1939 as a special World’s Fair edition, and in 1946, a third “victory” edition was printed with added text about the City’s role during the Second World War.

From her first days at the Municipal Library, Rankin observed the haphazard conditions in which valuable historical City government records had been stored and began transferring these materials to the Library. The “early Mayors” series and Common Council papers, dating back to the 17th century, are two of the most notable Municipal Archives core collections that Rankin rescued and preserved in the Library.

In 1939, after cleaning-out the basement of City Hall for the third time, she convinced Mayor LaGuardia that an archival program was necessary to care for historical records. He appointed her Chair of a newly-created Mayor’s Municipal Archives Committee. He also directed the Board of Estimate to purchase the 12-story Rhinelander Building (where One Police Plaza now stands) to house historical records. However, war-time paper recycling campaigns diverted the Committee and steel shortages made it impossible to equip the building with needed shelving.

LaGuardia relied on Rankin for more than just her skill as a librarian—in 1942 he asked her to take over the New York City Committee for Latin-American Scholarships. With financial backing from businesses that had connections in South America, the Committee arranged for free business and professional courses for 20 Latin-American college graduates per year, for three years. Rankin continued her work with the Committee until 1945.

Rebecca Rankin, Librarian, Municipal Reference Library (Left) with Lillian Slaughter, Latin American Scholarship winner from Chile, September 29, 1942. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

After the war, the newly-elected Mayor William O’Dwyer revived the Municipal Archives Committee. He reappointed Rankin and asked her to expand its scope to develop a modern records management program modeled on emerging federal and state systems. To that end she worked on a record retention manual, and developed a records manager training course. In 1950 the Board of Estimate funded staff for the Rhinelander Building and in 1951 they authorized the purchase of shelving and archival boxes.

On June 23, 1952, Rankin presided over a graduation ceremony at City Hall for 33 new public records officers. At the event, Mayor Impellitteri praised Rankin for her work in making the Municipal Archives and Records Center (MARC) a reality. It formally opened, on the day she retired, June 30, 1952.

Snapshot of Rankin at work at the Library shortly before her retirement in 1952. Rebecca Rankin Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Rebecca Rankin was inducted into the Special Libraries Hall of Fame at their 50th annual meeting in May 1959, for her four decades of service to the profession.

Rankin died on March 1, 1965, at the Dobbs Ferry Hospital near her home in Westchester County, New York. Unlike many notable women, Rebecca Rankin did receive an obituary in the New York Times; indeed she had been the subject of a Times editorial on the occasion of her retirement from City service in 1952.