At the NYPL: Imaginary Archives and Dog Princes

The introductory exercise made for us by Mary Catherine and Tali (“If you could be any archive, real or imagined, what archive would you be?”) was just as nerdy as it sounds—and a great entry point to conversation about what archives are, what they contain, how they are organized, and how they can be used. The presentation that followed offered clear and concrete tools for searching the NYPL special collections and a broader array of archives across the United States. There were enough details (about Boolean searches, for example) that I felt like I’d come away with some concrete tools, but not so many that it was overwhelming. Overall, this was the clearest, most engaging, most accessible, and most immediately useful of the archive tours we’ve done. I left feeling prepared not just to think about doing research at the NYPL, but to actually begin doing it.

I didn’t spend as much time as I could have circulating among the objects that were pulled for us from the archives because paging through the 1894 records of dog licenses from the ASPCA was endlessly fascinating. Tali handed me a prompt card as I looked at it that asked what disciplines might make use of this object, and the provocation guided me as I turned the pages.

There were, of course, straightforward pieces of information you could glean, such as the popularity of particular dog breeds. Mapping the dogs’ addresses could be interesting as well in terms of density of dog ownership. But one might also pay attention to the names of the dogs (why such a rash of “Princes” and the occasional “Princey”—what sociocultural event might this coincide with, or is the popularity of canine Princes relatively stable over time? What about “Nero,” also a common name, which in a cursory Google search now turns up pages of police dogs? And what might be gleaned from dogs whose given names are racial slurs?). Or there might be a use for the list of owners’ names and addresses, recorded only incidentally as dog owners but of course individuals (or data points) in their own right. You could also place this ledger in a context of other ledgers or recordkeeping practices from the time. The way it’s possible to use the ledger depends, too, on whether others are available to look at, and how wide a spread of dates they represent; this particular ledger represents just two months in 1894, circumscribing the scope of dates pretty narrowly.

Zooming back out from my preoccupation with this object—which might also have something to do with the fact that I’m a new dog owner—I very much appreciated the prompt cards (with deep attention to detail, printed on recycled “historical” library catalog cards!) like the one mentioned above that encouraged us to think more deeply, or think differently, about the objects we were encountering. Bringing a rolodex of such cards into an archive when beginning your research would be a nice way of casting your net wide and exploring your material from an unexpected angle.