Digitization and the NYU University Archives

By kiemma

On the 10th floor of Elmer Holmes Bobst Library lies a well-kept secret: the NYU University Archives. With only two full time staff, four part-time graduate assistants, and one part-time undergraduate student, the department is incredibly lean. This small staff supports roughly 800 unique patrons per year, with 55% of patrons affiliated with NYU, and 45% coming from outside the University. Though only formally created in the late 1970s, the department has been collecting materials since the University’s founding in 1831. The Archive is home to a range of collections, including items such as architectural renderings, administrative records, realia, busts, posters, audiovisual materials, mascots, and more. The Archive houses their collections onsite at Bobst and in a storage facility at Cooper Square, with 40% of the collection stored offsite in a warehouse upstate. Unlike a rare book and special collection reading room, the University Archives have a fairly flexible admission policy. Their reading room is open Monday through Friday, 9:30am to 5:00pm, by appointment only. However, this collection is not restricted to patrons with specific credentials (ie. academics), but instead is open to anyone with an interest in the Archive’s holdings.

Visiting NYU’s University Archives definitely brought up issues of access. The archives are open five days a week during normal business hours. A visit to the collection for anyone with a 9-5 weekday job would be impossible. Janet Bunde, the interim University Archivist at NYU, explained that the Archive hopes to extend their hours in order to better accommodate patrons who are only available on weekends. Digitization, of course, serves as a successful remedy to the challenges of physical access. However, a crucial issue facing many university archives and special collections, including the NYU University Archives, is the lack of funding available for digitization of records. NYU has only digitized an extremely small portion of their university archives, including 1,400 photographs, a small number of 35mm films, and a few documents. The collections that NYU has digitized have been made easily accessible through their digital finding aids, and are clearly organized and presented.

NYU University Archives  (from NYU Archives website)

NYU University Archives (from NYU Archives website)

I applaud Bunde and her staff for their hard work to make their archives accessible to all, and it seems that they are making great progress toward opening the collection to an even broader audience. There are still, however, major issues across institutions as to priorities of funding. Where staff constraints affect such issues of access as reading room hours, digitization serves as the antidote. There is a one-time labor commitment of digitizing and uploading materials to a server, which results in inestimable hours of use by patrons. This includes, of course, the labor of website and database maintenance, but one could argue that this time is still minimal compared to the perpetual staff needs of operating a reading room, retrieving physical materials for patrons, and providing face-to-face reference support (which of course has it’s positives, as compared to digital reference support).

Another challenge that Bunde discussed was determining which materials are necessary to preserve. In a university as large as NYU, there is a significant amount of material that must be sorted through and culled on an annual basis. As the university is able to bolster its digitization efforts, issues of quantity will become even more pressing. As Roy Rosenzweig states, “the simultaneous fragility and promiscuity of digital data requires yet more rethinking –about whether we should be trying to save everything, who is ‘responsible’ for preserving the past, and how we find and define historical evidence” (Rosenzweig, 2003). This will become a challenge that Bunde and her staff will have to grapple with as they are able to increase their digitization efforts.

Ultimately, I was very impressed with the NYU University Archives’ commitment to open access for all. Bunde and her staff created a welcoming environment for researchers who may not be regular patrons of university special collections. As Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook state, “archives –as records –wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies” (Schwartz & Cook, 2002). I believe that NYU has worked to create an archive that is inclusive of the many dialogues of NYU and the surrounding community, both historically and in current day. I was impressed with their commitment to functioning as an archive for the community, and I look forward to seeing what types of materials their future digitization projects bring to light.


Schwartz, Joan, and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2.1-19 (2002): 2-13. Print.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era”. The American Historical Review 108.3 (2003): 739. Print.


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