Responsibilities of a Reference Archivist

By Katie


The New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, pictured above, “holds over 29,000 linear feet of archival material in over 3,000 collections.” Records include “paper documents, photographs, sound recordings, films, videotapes, artifacts, and electronic records,” and are found in collections pertaining to the American Revolution, Civil War, and literary figures such as Washington Irving, Truman Capote, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and James Joyce, to name but a few. The Division especially prides itself on its collection of “the papers of individuals, families, and organizations, primarily from the New York region, dating from the 18th through the 20th centuries.”1

With so much information available to study, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where to start. Enter Tal Nadan, the Manuscripts and Archives Division’s reference archivist. On a recent visit to the Division, Ms. Nadan walked me through her daily responsibilities and shared some interesting stories about the department.

“The main tasks of the Reading Room archivists are conducting reference interviews, coordinating visits, enforcing policy, and answering remote reference requests,” Nadan explained.

The purpose of the reference interview is to allow Nadan to understand the researcher’s questions, aims, and needs. Armed with this information, she is able to direct the visitor to the most useful and appropriate records. The division usually sees about 15 to 20 researchers a week, with a bump on Saturdays and during holidays. Said Nadan, “We tend to get busy right after Thanksgiving, though we are quiet from Christmas to New Year’s Eve.” Many visitors plan extra stays, and Nadan quickly becomes acquainted with those conducting month-long research. “I get a feel for what they are studying, and sometimes I am able to suggest documents that might supplement their research.” She is quick to point out, however, that she is not a proxy researcher. She will gladly retrieve requested information, but “I can’t be expected to go through boxes and boxes of information looking for appropriate material. I’ll pull up requested documents, and I’ll scan to remote locations, but they must decide what is pertinent. Meaning is created from what you get out of the archives.” A bookcase in the Manuscripts and Archives Division holds the published works of those who conducted research there. “It encourages researchers to stay in contact with us. It also strengthens our relevance within the community,” she explained.

Every morning at 10:00, Nadan retrieves material that had been requested in advance. On the day of my visit, 15 large boxes were sitting on a desktop, brought up just a few days before. Most of them contained documents relating to the New York World’s Fairs of 1939/40 and 1964/65.

Said Nadan, “It’s always a popular topic of research because it’s interdisciplinary, but with the [50th and 75th] anniversaries coming up next year, research is really amping up.”

Because the Manuscripts and Archives Division shares a room with the Rare Books Division, and because there’s no way 29,000 linear feet of archives could possibly fit in a small reading room, the records are kept under Bryant Park in the Bryant Park Stack Extension. Built between 1988-91, the extension adds about 40 miles of shelf space and is reached via the elevator in the Rose Main Reading Room and through a 120-foot tunnel. The extension is temperature-controlled and includes “conveyor systems, a microfilm storage vault, and fire suppression systems.” Boxes are organized by size, a trend the whole library follows, and are accessed one range at a time due to compact shelving. It takes about twenty to thirty minutes to retrieve a collection. The entire New York World’s Fair collections take up 1,007 feet alone. 2.

Drawing of the Bryant Park Stack Extension

Even with the stack extension, Nadal laments the lack of space. “We don’t have enough room, enough funding, or a big enough staff.” With only two full-time archivists, two library technical assistants, and one person to process (who only rotates in one week out of five), the staff is kept quite busy. Nadan, who always wanted to be a librarian, enjoys working with the public and facilitating their research. The stresses brought on by a small staff and little funding haven’t manifested in “burn-out” or “alienation;” in fact, she looks forward to the challenges and rather finds a kind of “escape” in talking to visitors, even leading them on tours of the library. “Some people can find the library intimidating; I’m here to show them how accessible it is,” Nadan said.

An on-going project within the archives division is the digitalization of records. Currently, “more than 4,000 entries for archival collections and other materials held throughout NYPL have been made available for online browsing.” 3. During my visit, Nadan spoke of recent meetings she attended concerning MPLP (more product, less process) and search optimization with the goal of making online collections easier to find and access. Right now, many collections within the Manuscripts and Archives Division are not digitized. This is due to the labor-intensive nature of the work, no staff on-hand to do the work, and no funding to support the work. The only collection that has been fully digitized is the LGBT collection, made possible by a grant from Time Warner. For now, thousands of documents and records remain in their analog state only. Hopefully this will change over time.

To anyone conducting research, it’s plain to see how crucial Nadan’s role is. Without reference archivists like her, it would be nearly impossible to find all the appropriate records needed. Luckily, Nadan is happy to lend her services. “My job is very rewarding,” she said. “I’m happy anytime I can help further someone’s research.”

  1. Collection Description of the Manuscripts and Archives Division,
  2. Quick History Facts,
  3. See note 1

Unlocking the Treasure Chest: Archiving in the Digital Age

By Katie

In his 2003 article titled “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” historian Roy Rosenzweig wrote of his concern about the “fragility of evidence” in today’s digital world. In the past, archivists collected, organized, and preserved paper documents and photographs, known today as “analogue” records. Most of these are now being “made-digital”, meaning they are photographed, scanned, and converted into digital media. With the rise of technology, more and more records are “born-digital;” that is, they are initially created in electronic form, not intended to have an analogue equivalent.

Though digital records provide greater access to information and save shelf space, Rosenzweig laments their short life span.

“Digital and magnetic media deteriorate in ten to thirty years,” he writes.  But that’s not even the biggest problem. “The life expectancy of digital media may be as little as ten years, but very few hardware platforms or software programs last that long. Indeed, Microsoft only supports its software for about five years.”1

Imagine, if you will, that a treasure chest sits on the ground before you. You know it is full of something – gold, gems, riches, or perhaps something not so desirable. Your curiosity to find out what’s inside leads you to unlock it, but wait – the key doesn’t work! It’s an old treasure chest and the type of key needed to open it is no longer being made. Then, in a stroke of luck, you manage to find a key that fits! You turn the key, hearing the click of the lock that signifies you’ve opened the chest. You attempt to pry it open, only to find it’s rusted shut. You can’t open the treasure chest, and you’re unable to discover what it held.

This is the conundrum archivists are facing in the digital era. They have access to countless old files and floppy disks, but these records are no good if they can’t be opened because the software needed to run them is obsolete. Even if the software or hardware is available, the likelihood that the disk has deteriorated is high, and so the information contained within remains hidden.

A corollary to the short lifespan of digital records is the need to archive them as soon as possible, rather than allowing years to pass before they are collected. Rosenzweig provides an interesting example:

“What might happen, for example, to the records of a writer active in the 1980s who dies in 2003 after a long illness? Her heirs will find a pile of unreadable 5¼” floppy disks with copies of letters and poems written in WordStar for the CP/M operating system or one of the more than fifty now-forgotten word-processing programs used in the late 1980s.”2

As thought-provoking as this example is on its own, it’s considerably even more captivating because it mirrors a real-life situation.

In 1996, playwright and composer Jonathan Larson, best known for his hit Broadway show Rent, died suddenly the night before the musical was to open. He left behind seven years of drafts, compositions, and letters saved on 189 floppy disks. The Library of Congress acquired these records in 2003. Five years later, Doug Reside, New York Public Library’s Digital Curator of Performing Arts, obtained permission to work with the files in the hopes of discovering what they contained.

In a 2012 interview, Reside commented, “There were over 30 files containing texts of Rent, many of which contained within themselves early drafts preserved by Microsoft Word 5.1′s “fast save” feature. There were also music files in early versions of Digital Performer and Finale and letters Larson wrote to his agents, to Stephen Sondheim, and to friends about the show.”

Unfortunately, Larson wrote his drafts on software that is now obsolete, and saved them to storage systems that are now outdated. Simply opening the files on a modern-day computer was not an option.

First, Reside copied the materials bit-for-bit and stored them on a more stable medium at the Library.3 This process is known as migration, defined by Rosenzweig as “moving documents from a medium, format, or computer technology that is becoming obsolete to one that is becoming more common.”4 Then, in order to read the drafts, Reside used a “Basilisk II emulator, which allowed him to see the files exactly as Larson had seen them, right down to the chunky fonts and irritating pop–up error messages.”5

The final draft of Rent, as Larson saw it January 15, 1996.6

 Using a text editor called Text Wrangler, Reside was able to uncover the last 14 revisions Larson made, highlighting the playwright’s creative process. Because of Reside’s work, we now know what hidden information Larson’s floppy disks contained.

But as both Rosenzweig and Reside point out, other cases may not be so successful. What if Larson hadn’t died so young? What if he had gone on to write more shows, leaving behind an even larger body of work? What if his records hadn’t been made available so soon after his death? Most likely his work – his drafts, revisions, early compositions – would remain a mystery, hidden behind a deteriorated medium, unreadable by software and hardware now obsolete.

As the use of technology increases, archivists, librarians, and historians must find a way to keep up before records are lost forever.

  1. Rosenzweig, Roy, “Abundance or Scarcity? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 108, No. 3 (June 2003): 741-42.
  2. Ibid., 745-46
  3. Doug Reside, “‘No Day But Today”: A look at Jonathan Larson’s Word Files.” New York Times, 2012 <>.
  4. Op. cit., Rosenzweig, p.747.
  5. Jennifer Schuessler. “Tale of the Floppy Disks: How Jonathan Larson Created ‘Rent’.” New York Times, 2012. <>.
  6. Op. cit., Reside.

How Libraries are Remaining Relevant in a Technological World

By Katie

In today’s technology-driven society, wherein users are a click away from accessing any and all kinds of information, libraries are plagued with maintaining a position of relevancy in the community lest they succumb to obsolescence. In the words of Andre Cossette, author of “Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship,” “Librarians find themselves in a technological world amidst a technological revolution, to which they are having trouble adapting” (23). This pressure to keep up with technology is compounded by a constant lack of funds. How might libraries assert their public presence and technological authority when faced with budgetary setbacks? Librarians in Colorado and Kansas are coming up with creative solutions to these very issues.

An article published in Library Journal’s July issue presented an interesting example. This past June, Colorado’s Aurora Public Library set up shop inside a local Kmart. The 600-square foot room accommodates 11 computers for the public’s use, making it more of an information or computer center than a traditional library. Despite the center’s lack of books, users are able to access the internet for educational or recreational purposes. Library members have unlimited use of the computers, while those without library cards are restricted to one hour. Luckily, since library cards are free, this should encourage non-traditional library users to start a membership. Patrons can connect to the library’s online catalog if they wish to place a hold on books, and they can even request drop-off or pick-up of books in the store.

There are many benefits to this unconventional solution. To start, the library “runs at a fraction of the cost of a conventional branch,” allowing Aurora’s public librarians the opportunity to save the money they would have spent on materials and upkeep in a bigger library. Additionally, by placing the computer center at the front of Kmart, the library will likely benefit from a greater exposure than a traditional library building could hope to receive. Customers looking to shop at Kmart may find themselves using the computers and signing up for a library card simply because of the library’s convenient location. Finally, and perhaps best of all, by opening this satellite branch, Aurora Public Library is strengthening its relationship with the community by meeting the needs of its citizens. According to the article, “one third of individuals living in northern Aurora–where many immigrant and low-income families live and the Kmart is located–do not own personal computers.” Cossette writes that “in providing needed information [and access to that information] to all citizens, especially the most disadvantaged, the library lends its support to the realization of democratic ideals” (56). In one fell swoop, Aurora Public Library managed to maintain its relevancy within the community and provide internet access for those who need it in a cost-effective way.

Elsewhere in the country, libraries have approached these aforementioned challenges in a different, though similarly unconventional, manner. Another article in the July issue of Library Journal explained how Kansas State Library recently partnered with its local airport, Manhattan Regional, to provide passengers with reading material while they wait to board. The program, called Books on the Fly, encourages people with mobile devices such as cell phones and e-readers to scan QR codes placed on cards throughout the airport. Users are taken to the library’s website, where library members can then download, for free, any of the library’s e-books. Nonmembers are redirected to Project Gutenberg, a digital library that contains thousands of e-books ready to be downloaded to any computer or mobile device.

According to Candace LeDuc, communications coordinator of Kansas’ state library, “the only cost to the library is the printed materials. Once your material is in the airport, there’s no overhead.” Because there are no computers or physical books to maintain, this is a simple, inexpensive way to promote a library without breaking the budget.

As was the case in Colorado, by establishing a base in a highly-populated, if unorthodox, location, Kansas State Library managed to find a way to reach out to the public, especially those who may not be the traditional library patron. According to the article,“With its emphasis on QR codes as a point of entry, the program is designed to appeal to irregular readers with time on their hands.” Once again, librarians were able to find a cost-effective way to secure their library’s place in a technology-centered society.

When libraries are faced with unrelenting budget cuts, the challenges of staying atop the current technological trends and maintaining a strong relationship with the community seem overwhelming. Author and librarian Sandy Iverson worried that “while technology has increased access to information, at the same time we are experiencing funding cutbacks to the public library system…In order to continue service, libraries are beginning to charge user fees for certain services. This practice contradicts the tenets of equal access to information, and may eventually result in the extinction of the public library system.” But as the librarians in Colorado and Kansas proved, it does not have to come to that. It takes some creative thinking, but it is possible to work with a reduced budget to incorporate technology at no cost to users, all the while establishing a strong public role. As these two cases show, libraries are far from becoming extinct.

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