Legacy Cataloging at the NYC Municipal Archives

Cataloging, this week’s blog, is the first in a series about the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work City archivists perform to preserve and provide access to the collections.

Many of the most heavily-used collections, such as the records of mayoral administrations, have always been well-cataloged. But even these collections required researchers to separately search each series within the mayor’s papers for the relevant information on the subject or topic.

The Municipal Archives is widely known for both the quantity of its holdings—more than 246,000 cubic feet and 185 Terabytes—and their value for researching diverse topics in New York City and American history. But the information about the collections—the finding aids, catalogs and inventories needed to provide access—are not yet at a level commensurate with the world-class quality of the records themselves.

Like many archival institutions, the Municipal Archives has adopted computer-based technologies that are transforming the way patrons discover and access library and archival materials. At the Archives, it began with a single PC, acquired in 1985. Today, the agency’s IT division operates a network of dozens of computers equipped with the latest tools and applications that enable the Archives to manage more than 185 terabytes (and growing) of electronic data.

By the late 1980s, the Archives was creating inventories in database and spreadsheet formats. But the volume of the Archives’ collection, and the lack of consistent resources, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s, left these efforts incomplete. In 2014, under the leadership of Archives Director Sylvia Kollar, the Archives prioritized the work necessary to gain comprehensive intellectual and physical control over its holdings.

It was not a lack of information about the records that caused difficulties; if anything it was the opposite. The archivists discovered a plethora of sources for collection information—accession registers, card catalogs, shelf lists, microfilm targets, databases, lists—dating back to the 1950s, in every possible format ranging from hand-written penciled notes, to formal finding aids with folder and sometimes even item-level inventories.

The first step was to adopt an archival content management system. After research and consultation with colleagues in other institutions, ArchivesSpace (AS) was chosen as the most suitable public interface. AS is a web application that allows the public easy access to all of the descriptive information needed to identify relevant materials in the Archives’ collections.

The next step was to begin the arduous process of assembling and preparing the information about collections that would be made publicly available in AS. The archivists charged with making that happen faced some daunting challenges.

This typed inventory of materials received from the Mayor’s Office on May 14, 1958, provides an example of an intriguing and specific list of correspondence and a scrapbook, but with outdated location information. Considerable time would be spent confirming the existence of and current location of these items.

 Complicating the quantity of data (or lack of) about the records, were the inconsistencies in how records were described and how names and titles were spelled and listed. Here are three catalog entries referencing Mayor Vincent Impellitteri.

Complicating the quantity of data (or lack of) about the records, were the inconsistencies in how records were described and how names and titles were spelled and listed. Here are three catalog entries referencing Mayor Vincent Impellitteri.

Although there were multiple sources of descriptive data for most collections, for some there was only rudimentary, or no, catalog information. Even the accession database, the most comprehensive extant record of the Archives’ holdings lacked information about important collections, among them, the Brooklyn Bridge drawings. The story of the collection’s discovery in a Department of Transportation carpentry shop in 1969, and eventual transfer to Municipal Archives in 1976 had been the subject of an article in American Heritage magazine (vol. 31, 1979). The collection was subsequently featured in Ken Burns’ Brooklyn Bridge documentary film and many drawings had been included in exhibitions and books. But the collection was not listed in the accession database. Finally, in 2017, the archivists retrospectively accessioned the Brooklyn Bridge drawings.

Brooklyn Bridge Drawing #656: Caisson in Position, Brooklyn Side, September 28, 1869. Washington A. Roebling. NYC Municipal Archives.

The archivists completed a restrospective accession in 2017 and the field notes now state: “According to David McCullough's December 1979 article in American Heritage (Volume 31, Issue 1), Francis P. Valentine, an engineer for the Department of Transportation, discovered roughly ten thousand drawings in the department’s carpentry shop at 352 Kent Avenue in 1969. After contacting a variety of museums and historical societies, the Whitney museum conserved and displayed 65 of the most striking drawings. They were then transferred to the Municipal Archives in 1976.”

Guide to the Municipal Government of the City of New York, NYC Municipal Library.

In preparation for the introduction of ArchivesSpace, the archivists developed a plan to clean-up the data. One of the most important steps was to adopt consistent description protocols based on national standards and authority records.

Another of the important aspects of the project was to research agency histories. The Municipal Reference Library’s Guide to the Municipal Government of the City of New York, authored by MRL Librarian Thelma Smith was an indispensable tool for archivists tasked with researching agency histories. However, the most recent edition of Smith’s guide is from 1974—leaving the archivists with much additional research to bring agency histories up to date.

As illustrated in this chart, the Commission on Human Rights, formally established in 1962, originated as the Mayor’s Committee on Unity in 1944, evolving into the Commission on Intergroup Relations in 1955. Agency histories are important for patrons who may not realize that there was a previous iteration of the agency, or function, with a different title. By searching Commission on Human Rights in AS, they will access all the other associated and predecessor entities that are in the Archives collection.

The Official Directory of the City of New York, first published in 1914 was another essential source for agency history information.

Many of the most heavily-used collections, such as the records of mayoral administrations, have always been well-cataloged. But even these collections required researchers to separately search each series within the mayor’s papers for the relevant information on the subject or topic. Similarly, it was not possible to simultaneously search across multiple collections. ArchivesSpace will enable patrons to easily perform this type of all-collection research.

We are pleased to announce that ArchivesSpace is scheduled for an initial public roll-out in November 2018.