An Interview with Ted O’Reilly, New-York Historical Society

Ted at Work

Ted O’Reilly is Head of the Manuscript Department at the New-York Historical Society, where he has worked since 2004. He holds a B.A. in history from the College of the Holy Cross, an M.A. in Irish Studies from the National University of Ireland, Galway, and an M.L.S. from the Palmer School, Long Island University. Today he speaks with The Junto about the New-York Historical Society’s accessioning of a new collection—its own Institutional Archive.

JUNTO: What is the New-York Historical Society Institutional Archive? What type of material is in it?

O’REILLY: It is the body of historic records documenting the New-York Historical Society’s  (N-YHS) administration and activities from its founding in 1804 through to the present day. It contains quite an array of materials, including core formats such as meeting minutes, correspondence, and acquisition and membership records, as well as complementary material such as papers presented before the society, ephemera and photographs. The Archive also holds quite a number of architectural drawings from various N-YHS buildings.

JUNTO: How did the materials come to be in the Archive?

O’REILLY: The odd item or small cache of material has been repatriated from other parts of the N-YHS library collections (whether erroneously separated or perhaps discovered in the papers of an early member such as founder John Pintard) but otherwise, everything suggests that the institutional archive has been an ever-growing body of documents, maintained by N-YHS over the course of its history. Actually, it’s bordering on miraculous how much of the early record has survived over the course of N-YHS’s seven (!) moves throughout New York City.

JUNTO: The New-York Historical Society, it seems, has always had an issue with cataloging materials. Can you explain the process used in cataloging the Institutional Archive?

O’REILLY: We’ve made immense strides in the last couple decades, especially given the support of organizations like the Leon Levy Foundation, which is behind this project. But yes, it’s certainly a common challenge facing most special collection repositories, especially for those collecting as long as N-YHS. Interestingly, the institutional archive is an excellent way to understand how those challenges began; in the late-19th century, N-YHS collected at such a feverish rate (evidenced by accession ledgers in the Institutional Archives) that it initiated a tremendous backlog, one which we’re only now getting a grasp on.

In terms of the present project, I would just begin by clarifying that we less commonly “catalog” archival collections today. (The term intimates more intensive description, specifically at the item level.) Instead, we use the term “process” and to maximize the archivist’s efforts we typically provide description at the folder level. Despite this, we’ve striven to include a granularity to this project, especially where there’s uncommon research value. One of the reasons for this approach is to avoid posting a large finding aid that comes across as formulaic and devoid of the kind of detail that will elicit scholarly interest. I think the judicious use of this detail that our staff has employed thus far works exceptionally well providing an ideal level of description.

JUNTO Are there any themes than run through it?

O’REILLY: Probably far too many to do justice to here but perhaps the broadest is the evolution of American intellectual culture, especially with regard to American history. I think there’s an awful lot revealing how N-YHS contributed to nineteenth-century America’s formulation of a national identity through history, something which is reflected in its collecting, the histories it presented, and other organizational functions.

This narrative becomes especially important when you consider that the New-York Historical Society was a foundational New York institution in 1804, and exceptional even at the national level. Moreover, in its first century, N-YHS busied itself well beyond American history, dabbling widely in natural history, art, archaeology, and ethnology and in doing so, fulfilling the roles since taken up by New York mainstays like the New York Public Library, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

JUNTO: Any special items, letters, objects, or favorite “puzzles” that you’d like to highlight here?

O’REILLY: Well, there is a swatch from the coat Lincoln wore at Ford’s Theater! More seriously though, two documents that resonate with me are an 1818 receipt for N-YHS’s payment for the transporting to New York of columns from Ireland’s Giant Causeway and a detailed 1865 letter from an American professor in Peru sending “relicts of antiquity” from a pre-Columbian burial site in the Valley of Pachacamac. Naturally, their individual stories are enticing, but together they suggest a potentially very interesting point of inquiry into N-YHS’s interactions and activities abroad. While we might speculate that overseas memberships, such as that of François de Barbé-Marbois, were mainly honorary, we’ve seen enough evidence to conclude that the N-YHS archives contain a fair amount of material to support this kind of investigation.

JUNTO: What are you hoping to achieve with the Archive?

O’REILLY: “Access” is a mantra for archivists, to the point of cliché, but that is certainly our aim here. Over the decades, numerous attempts were made to gain some kind of intellectual control over the institutional archives but each fell well short of comprehensive. More importantly, no public-oriented guide has existed, so the minimal work that researchers have carried out in the records depended primarily on the efforts of reference staff ferreting out useful material. At the conclusion of the project we hope that the finding aid will allow researchers to take a more active role in recognizing potentially useful records, but more importantly, to make it apparent that such a sizable, important collection actually exists and is open for research.

JUNTO How can the Archive help early Americanists, broadly defined, in furthering scholarship?

O’REILLY: Arguably, the most historically significant material right now is from the first century or so of N-YHS’s existence which corresponds nicely with the period of most interest to early Americanists. More to the point, what is particularly useful is that these records tell a discrete institutional story, a case study bolstered by the fact that the institution in question was a pioneer among cultural institution functioning in a period when America was still in its formative decades. That and the eclectic nature of N-YHS’s work in the nineteenth century infuse these documents with an especial value.

JUNTO: Lastly, where can we find out more information about it?

O’REILLY: In an effort to hasten use of the collection, we’re posting finding aids in periodic batches as we process record groups. Early Americanists will be glad to hear that the staff has now completed nearly all the extant nineteenth-century records in the Institutional Archives and is now progressing into the twentieth century. Researchers can consult individual finding aids for the completed material, as well as consult an “umbrella” finding aid which provides a higher level view of the collection, by following this link.

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