Last Thursday I took the day to visit the New-York Historical Society Library to go through some of their boxes and files featuring photographs and ephemera of New York City streets and buildings over the past 200 years.  A few weeks ago, I wrote an email via the website assistance form, and sent it to the care of the Department of Prints, Photographs & Architectural Collections (https://www.nyhistory.org/web/default.php?section=library&page=reference_assistance_form).  I emailed back and forth with the librarian, who was very helpful. She gave me an overview of the materials in the N-YHS collection relating to my project that were available to view, she made an appointment for me, and then asked me to send a final list of all the buildings, architects, and addresses I was hoping to see photographs of a day before my visit.

When I arrived, I checked my things, and kept only my notebook, some pencils, and a camera. The librarian navigated several different collections bringing me almost a dozen boxes of varying size, as well as a dozen more over-sized folders filled with photographs and ephemera.

I grossly underestimated how long it would take to go through all the archival material.  I thought I only needed a couple of hours in the archive, but I arrived at 10am and barely made it out when it closed at 4:30pm, and I didn’t take a break (not even lunch!).  I highly recommend that anyone doing archival research allow for at least twice as much time for when they visit an archival collection.

Archival material is tricky.  I found it to be a very physical activity, particularly when handling some of the really large mounted photographs.  Furthermore, you never really know what you’re going to uncover, which makes it all the more exciting.  It also means that you might get stuck with a box or folder filled with fascinating materials that have nothing to do with your research.  I was half way through a box overflowing with photographs of Park Avenue above 72nd  street before I forced myself to put it away because it was completely irrelevant.  As much as you might want to look at everything, you have to try to stay focused on the subject at hand. In another instance, I was looking through a box of photographs taken by C. G. Hine.  Though fascinating, the photos were too small for me to be able to take good-quality photographs of with my camera, so after looking at around 20 photographs, I decided to cut my losses and move on to another box.  I would have loved to pour over those tiny photographs longer, but there just wasn’t enough time.

My experience not only provided me with some fascinating material for my project (I took unlimited photographs for the low cost of $15), but it also helped me develop some compelling ideas.  I’ve realized that my project will have to be a lot more visual than I expected. For example, a photograph taken of Park Row in 1870 looks very different from one taken in 1880 and even in 1890 because of the ongoing competition to build taller and more ornate buildings at that time.  I want to be able to show that change in the skyline, and the progression of building height and architectural styles by juxtaposing a series of photographs of similar Park Row views over time.  I also think I'm starting to understand some interesting facts in regards to the Wall Street Journal.  I discovered that the New York Stock Exchange was located (from 1865 to 1901) at 10 Broad Street. I suddenly realized why the Wall Street Journal would locate its first office at 26 Broad Street: not only was it just 7 buildings south from the NY Stock Exchange, but also at the time, a lot of the trading took place on the street in front of the NY Stock Exchange—in this case Broad Street—which was literally outside the WSJ’s door!  Seeing the photographs helped me better understand the spatial relationship between the WSJ growth as a newspaper and the source of its news.

Ironically, the one thing I wish I had brought with me to the N-YHS was the most obvious considering the scope of our projects: a map of New York City.  A lot of the photographs of buildings and streets have captions, such as: “View of Park Row buildings from north west; Times Building opposite City Hall Park, on Park Row; Nassau & Spruce Streets.”  It sometimes got a bit confusing trying to get my geographic bearings looking at photographs; if I had a map with me, it would have been much easier to understand which facade of the buildings the photograph was facing.

All in all, my library visit was a success!  I was able to go through all the materials the librarian pulled for me, although there were a few other architectural tubes and boxes that I would be interested in perusing in the future if I have time.