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
The following two tabs change content below.

One thought on “Responsibilities of a Reference Archivist

  1. Katie,

    While, I enjoyed reading about the “reference archivist”, I think it would be interesting if a page existed about the duties of library paige? In my opinion the researchers have utmost respect and awe for the underpaid, backbreaking work the paige workers do for their research patrons. It is often that flowers are praised for their sound and undeniable beauty, yet few is said about the importance of the bumble bee. If it ceased to exist the world as we know it would not be habitable.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License

WordPress theme based on Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.