Tag Archives: NYPL

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.

Reflections: NYPL Visit

This wasn’t the first time I’ve visited the 42nd street NYPL nor will it be the last. Some key talking points which will frame the rest of my post: the communities we as researchers and scholars are a part of; the macro- and micro-level decision making in creating an archive, and the structures governing an archive.

Last semester, in Intro to Doctoral Studies in English, I attended an NYPL field trip. I met Mary Catherine and Tal Nadan during that trip. Following that I worked up the courage to visit the archive on my own time and peruse rare books and manuscripts. A little exercise like this broke down my apprehensions regarding the archive. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize the fact that Mary Catherine and Tal not only remembered me from back then but were just as interested in what materials I am currently researching and how my projects changed since then. Experiences like these remind me that we belong to a community of scholars and researchers. I’m very thankful to know that we have such helpful, beneficent, and supportive people to whom we can count on when we enter places like the NYPL. Due to the proximity of the GC to the NYPL (8 city blocks away), we possess the opportunity to foster such relationships with archivists and curators.

Mary Catherine’s question “If you were an archive which archive would you be?” got me thinking: what sort of archive would I be? What sort of materials would I collect and what would I not collect? Would my scope be broad or narrow? Which materials would I choose to ignore? These questions brought attention to the macro- and micro- decision making that goes into the collecting of an archive. They also shed a light onto the decision making that goes on to choosing our own research practices. Why do we gravitate towards certain objects more than others?

The flow chart outlining the structure of the archive served as a reminder that it’s also another institution. These curators and archivists have bosses. The NYPL as a public institution relies on government funding. The fact that the library closes early speaks to fluctuating funding practices over the years. But we still get access to the material and can touch material without an archivist hounding over us.