The New-York Historical Society is one of the oldest independent research libraries in the United States. The Museum and Library collection strengths include local history of New York City and State; colonial history; the Revolutionary War; American military and naval history; religions and religious movements, 18th and 19th century; the Anglo-American slave trade and conditions of slavery in the United States; the Civil War; American biography and genealogy; American art and art patronage; the development of American architecture from the late 18th to the present; and 19th and 20th century portraiture and documentary photographs of New York City.
Internship Spring 2013
Erin Shaw: During the Spring 2013 semester, I was fortunate enough to intern at the New-York Historical Society’s library. Working with the Manuscript Curator, Maurita Baldock, I was able to process two collections that spanned from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first century.
First, I processed the King Family Papers. The most notable member of the King family is Rufus King, attendee of the Constitutional Convention, signer of the United States Constitution, and an unsuccessful candidate for vice-president twice, in 1804 and 1808; however, his progeny also include such other such notable figures as one of the first presidents of Columbia University, a governor of New Jersey, and a governor of New York. The majority of correspondence is between family members, and the collection gives an exclusive glimpse into the life of a prominent New York family from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century.
The second collection I processed was the Westside Crime Prevention Program Records. The Westside Crime Prevention Program was a community-organized initiative that attempted to address the drug and crime problem that plagued the Upper West Side in the 1980s and 1990s. The program empowered residents to take a proactive stance against criminals and criminal activity in their community, and helped to bridge the communication gap between police officers and community members. The program was so successful that it disbanded a few years ago, feeling that the core of its mission had been achieved. While it may take some time for this collection to pique the interest of historians, the collection offers a potentially incredible case study for sociologists, or those interested in the rapid change to Manhattan’s demographic in the late twentieth century.
Processing these two collections introduced me to the wide breadth of the New-York Historical Society’s holdings as well as provided me with invaluable experience handling a variety of archival materials, with materials from both collections spanning from before the Revolutionary War to nearly the present day.
Internships Spring 2012
Megan Findling: This semester I had a wonderful experience working at the New York Historical Society with Marci Reaven (VP for Historical Exhibits) on the upcoming WWII & NYC exhibition. The exhibition focuses on the home front during World War II and highlights the way in which the war touched every aspect of life in New York City. It is a place-based exhibition with each section highlighting a different venue for war effort activities such as schools and museums.
At the beginning of the semester I started off taking this location-centric mindset and began researching for the Education Department. I was gathering interesting war effort events whose specific address I could pin down. I went though secondary sources, microfilmed newspapers, and other municipal documents like archived Parks Department announcements. Two excellent overviews of New York City life during the war are Over Here!: New York City During World War II by Lorraine Diehl and Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II by Richard Goldstein. Diehl’s book in particular also includes fascinating photographs from the period.
As the semester progressed, I looked for a way to turn all the information I had gathered into a resource that could help make the exhibition and learning about the period more interesting for children. Working with Museum Educator Allyson Schettino we were able to come up with a project that would add a local history component to the larger themes of World War II that 8th and 11th graders must learn under New York’s Scope and Content standards. These two grades focus on such concepts as the response to Pearl Harbor, the African American experience, and women during the War. I created a profile card for each topic including a photograph, brief history, and connection to the theme so that teachers will be able to add local examples to their lessons. Secondly, I selected sites of war activity from each borough writing a brief paragraph of historical context. These will hopefully be the basis for a local history project teachers can assign where students create an in-class exhibit, walking tour, or photograph the sites in the present day. This project was great for me because I learned to think critically about how to translate the information to teach larger themes while retaining a local connection.
The exhibition opens October 5, 2012.
Rachel Schimke: My internship with the manuscripts division of the New York Historical Society’s library gave me the opportunity to work with some amazing collections from the nineteenth century. The first collection I processed was the Peter Curtenius Papers. Curtenius served as the U.S. Marshal for the District of New York during the War of 1812. One of his duties was to maintain registers of the approximately 1,500 British citizens living in New York (about half of whom lived in New York City) during the war. Curtenius corresponded often with the Department of State (led by James Monroe), receiving frequent instructions regarding these British “aliens.” The collection also includes registers of British prisoners of war and correspondence from the Department of the Treasury, which was then headed by Albert Gallatin, the founder of NYU.
I also processed the James Harper Papers. Harper, of Harper & Brothers fame, was not only a famous publisher, but also served as mayor of New York City from 1844-1845. The collection is primarily correspondence written to him from his constituents, mostly proposals for public projects, grievances, and requests for jobs. As Harper is best known for his work in the publishing industry, this collection offers an interesting look at his other pursuits and interests.
The final collection I processed was the Alexander Robert Chisolm Papers. Chisolm served as the senior aide-de-camp to General Beauregard during the Civil War. He was present at many important battles, including Fort Sumter, the First Battle of Bull Run, and Shiloh. Through letters, speeches, notes, and copies of Chisolm’s unpublished autobiography, the collection richly documents Chisolm’s memories of the conflict.
Internship Spring 2011
Many associate the name Roebling with the design and production of the Brooklyn Bridge, but what about the minds behind the scenes that aided in the planning and construction of this unprecedented engineering project? Aside from a plaque on the bridge listing the names of six other men involved in the bridge’s engineering, their contribution is rarely acknowledged in any popular history of the bridge.
One of those men is William H. Paine, an assistant engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge. Paine’s papers reside at the New-York Historical Society, and I processed them as a part of my internship this semester. For 14 years, Paine worked on the engineering and construction of the bridge’s cable railway system, obtaining 14 patents for new or improved technologies.
Although Paine is immortalized on that plaque for his work on the Brooklyn Bridge, he was involved with innovative engineering and major events of his time long before this. In 1848, he settled in the young state of Wisconsin and began his career as a land surveyor. Shortly after, Paine tried his hand at gold mine engineering in California at the height of the Gold Rush. Clearly a self-starter, upon returning to Wisconsin, Paine patented and began selling his “Paine’s Patent Steel Measuring Tape” while working on various railroad projects.
In 1861, Paine joined the Union Army as a topographical engineer and served in this position for the entirety of the Civil War, mapping land in Washington D.C. and Virginia. Post-war, Paine settled in Brooklyn and worked as a consulting engineer for major projects including the Niagara Suspension Bridge, the 10th Avenue railway line and, most notably, the Hudson River Tunnel.
The William H. Paine Papers document Paine’s diverse interests and involvement with modern innovations of his time, as well as his accounts of major events, particularly the Gold Rush and the Civil War. It is not often that we question the little-known names associated with major projects like the Brooklyn Bridge, but when we do, the results can be rich and exciting — as they are with the papers of William H. Paine.
Jacqueline Colognesi: assisting Marci Reaven (V.P., Historical Exhibits) at New York Historical Society on an exhibit she is curating on New York City in World War II, which will run from March 1, 2013 to September 1, 2013.
This past spring, my internship with the New York Historical Society had me searching for voices-the voices of those who lived, worked, or even just passed through New York City during World War II.
Thankfully, World War II has long been the focus of oral historians. Interest recording wartime memories actually began during the war, with personnel from the Army’s Information & Historical divisions interviewing soldiers directly after combat. Today, a number of institutions are carrying on the tradition and are executing projects dedicated to the preservation of World War II reflections.
The largest national project is the Veteran’s History Project, run by the Library of Congress. The project aims to help citizens better understand the realities of war. It is not primarily focused on World War II-veterans and civilians who participated in six different U.S. conflicts are invited to participate in the project and share their memories.
Rutgers University also possesses an extensive oral history archive dedicated to conflict histories. The archive is searchable by conflict and geographic region, and heavily focuses on participants from the New York/New Jersey area.
A good oral history archive or project doesn’t always have to be large, however. “What did you do in the War, Grandma?” is a great example of a student-run oral history project. Rhode Island high schoolers interviewed a group of 36 women about their roles in the war, and came away with some fascinating stories.
These are just a few examples of the hundreds of existing World War II oral history collections. If you’re in the market for World War II oral histories, a good place to start (besides Google) is the Alexander Street Oral History Database. Happy hunting!