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Summer 2001

Treasures from City University Archives, Special Collections

 

 

n early 20th-century middy blouse worn by a Hunter College scholar, photographs of the Baruch College building at 17 Lexington Avenue under construction in the 1920s, World War II correspondence from soldiers who graduated from Brooklyn College, admission tickets to a 19th-century commencement exercise of CUNY's original incarnation, the Free Academy-such was the serendipity that greeted visitors to a traveling exhibition, "150 Years of Excellence: From the Free Academy to the City University of New York, 1847-1997," that opened four years ago in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Free Academy.
Several collections of photographs of the family that gave Baruch College its name have been donated to its archives over the years. Hundreds of photographs have been identified as capturing members of the Baruch family and cover the period from the 1880s until the 1960s. Seen here is a family grouping, probably dating from the turn of the century, with Baruch standing rear right.

That collection of significant memorabilia, of course, represented but a tiny fraction of the artifacts and documents that tell the history of the campuses which now comprise The City University of New York. When we curators of "150 Years of Excellence" -Professors Anthony Cucchiara, Barbara Dunlap and I-visited the campuses in the five boroughs to select appropriate archival items, we had much to choose from. Our work resulted in the book, From the Free Academy to CUNY: Illustrating Public Higher Education in New York City, 1847-1997 (Fordham University Press).

One particular surprise was our discovery that archives at several of the colleges housed not merely institutional archives but also special collections. Many of these special collections are only now being revealed as important scholarly resources.

In 1951 Queens College established a senior unit of the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps; it continued until 1960. Enrollment reached nearly 500 hundred during the Korean War. ROTC's high visibility on campus was occasionally emphasized by the rumble of a tank, as well as by frequent drills and the organization of a Queens College military fraternity.

The archival program at CUNY can be traced back to 1984, with the publication by the New York State Historical Records Advisory Board of Toward a Useable Past. This document recommended the initiation of archival programs at public institutions in the state, and it was cited in the introduction to the policy statement establishing archives at the City University. Recognizing the need for sound and professional archival programs at its colleges, the Board of Trustees approved a "Resolution on Archives" on June 24, 1985. The resolution stated, "The University calls for the establishment of an archival program at each of its constituent Colleges, as well as at the Central Office, in order to promote the collection, preservation, inventorying, and access to such records." Each college president was asked to designate an archivist with the authority to gather and inventory non-current records of the college.

Among the treasures in the archives of Hunter College is the Jacob P. Adler Family Photograph Collection, which consists of eighty photographs relating to the Yiddish theater and the personalities who helped shape it. Seen here is the Jacob P. Adler Theater on Grand Street at the Bowery, circa 1908. The stage picture is of a play that satirized the Yiddish theater titled "Slaves of the Public."

Since that time most colleges have complied with the resolution, but the position at several campuses has remained vacant. The campuses that have archivists or someone with archival responsibilities have collected not only institutional archives but have often branched out into special collections. The range of subject areas is impressive, sometimes linked to community involvement in the institution or oriented to support special campus institutes or specific subject-matter specialties.

These collections come to the individual colleges in a variety of different formats including scrapbooks, photographs, taped interviews, ephemeral materials, monographs, manuscripts, etc. A collection of family pictures of Bernard Baruch and other assorted memorabilia was brought to the Baruch College archives in old leather suitcases, while at Brooklyn College a steamer trunk with documents concerning an early 20th-century mountain climber, Annie Peck, was rescued from destruction by an astute faculty member.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is shown here visiting the newly-built Brooklyn College campus on October 29, 1936. He is standing in front of the gymnasium building, which was named Roosevelt Hall in his honor.

A sampling of what is available takes us to various campuses. At Baruch College there are several distinct collections of Bernard M. Baruch family pictures and autographed books, donated by family members and also by collectors. At John Jay College police blotters, police handbooks, and other criminal justice documents are available to researchers. At City College, in addition to the excellent institutional archive which has materials dating to the mid-19th century, there is also the Russell Sage collection of more than 100,000 reports and publications issued by social welfare organizations in the U.S. from the late 19th century to 1940.

Brooklyn College, unsurprisingly, possesses a noteworthy collection of Brooklyniana chronicling the evolution of the borough and highlighting its political culture with papers of several legislative leaders, such as Congressmen John Rooney and Eugene Keogh and City Councilwoman Susan Alter, as well as documents of the Brooklyn Democratic Party from the first two decades of the twentieth century. Lehman College maintains the Bronx Institute, which is a collection of primary and secondary sources collected to document the history and development of the Bronx. Among the archival holdings of the Institute are oral histories, personal and organizational papers, books and photographs. Queens College's Louis Armstrong Archives, housed in the famed jazzman's longtime Corona home, contains a collection of tapes, scrapbooks, photographs, personal papers manuscripts, and musical instruments.

Flora Rheta Schreiber was the author of the best-selling book, Sybil, about a woman with multiple personalities. Schreiber was a professor of English and Speech at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and her papers are now housed there. Sybil chronicled the life and psychoanalysis of a woman thought to have 16 clinically distinct personalities.

LaGuardia Community College's LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, while not quite 20 years old, has been among the most aggressive in establishing an online presence.

Its holdings-most notably 150 years' worth of Steinway piano manufacturing history and the papers of Mayors LaGuardia, Wagner, Beame, and Koch-are searchable on its Web site. The Archives are also home to major collections of the New York City Housing Authority and the City Council.

The College of Staten Island has a newly established archive which contains the political papers of State Senator John J. Marchi, whose distinguished service to New York and particularly Staten Island spans 40 years. The archive also houses the Staten Island Historical Collection, the Staten Island Bank Collection, assorted papers of early Staten Island residents such as Theodora DuBois (1880-1986), and the Fresh Kills Landfill Collection, which contains agency environmental and scientific reports. Kingsborough Community College is now the repository of the Kingsborough Historical Society collection. It consists primarily of photographs documenting the history of Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay; many of the photographs turn back the clock to the elegant 19th century when resort hotels dotted the area. A special collection residing at the Graduate Center is the Durst Collection of New York City materials. The 10,000 books, 20,000 postcards and 3,000 photographs are an excellent resource for scholars.

From 1951 until 1954, hundreds of military dental lab technicians were trained at the Pearl Street building of New York City Technical College's precursor institution, the New York State Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences (founded in 1946 and brought into the City University system in 1964).

The archives and special collections at the CUNY campuses are now becoming more visible with the addition of on-line finding aids and other Web-based services. At City College an historical picture sampler with 150 photographs from their archive is available on-line from their archive page. At Brooklyn College, in addition to several finding aids, three virtual exhibits highlight aspects of the collection, and at Queens College an on-line exhibit focuses on Louis Armstrong. At Baruch College several projects are being planned, including providing digital images from historical scrapbooks.

The importance of preserving the past by actively collecting both the institutional memory as well as significant special collections cannot be over emphasized. Such efforts will afford not only research material for future scholars, but also provide the University's students with an appreciation of primary source materials. The archive and special collections available at the CUNY campuses cover a broad spectrum of subject areas, and surprising finds on every campus await for those adventurous enough to explore them. (A special note of thanks to the archivists, archival assistants, and chief librarians who assisted me in gathering the images presented here.)