Guide to the Research Collections



The New York Public Library is, in actuality, a universe of libraries containing virtually every kind of library collection and service yet described.

It is not, officially, a national library; but its research collections rank in size, scope, and quality with those of the Library of Congress, the British Museum, and the Bibliothèque Nationale, and constitute a resource of national and international importance.

It devotes itself to no specific faculty or student body; yet its Research Libraries are similar to those of the great university libraries of the United States and Europe, and function as a definitive source in answering the advanced research needs of students and faculty in New York City and other parts of New York State, as well as scholars throughout the nation. The new central facility of the Branch Libraries, the Mid-Manhattan Library, has been designed specifically with service to undergraduate students in mind. And to the academically unaffiliated, the New York Public Library is in itself a university: It is everyman's university.

Although it cannot provide the type of custom service often available from the "special" libraries of business, industrial, and professional organizations, the New York Public Library is, in fact, a conglomerate of special libraries covering almost every subject field (with the exception of law, medicine, theology, and pedagogy). Representatives of the business and professional communities account for at least one quarter of the use of its Research Libraries.

The library is not a school library. Yet both elementary and secondary school students in New York City have found the Branch Libraries to be indispensable, and the need to provide special services to children and young adults for both school-related and extracurricular reading was recognized by the library long ago.

Nor, surprisingly, is the New York Public Library a public library in the traditional meaning of that term.1 It is a public library because it is for the use of the public, and its Branch Libraries constitute the largest public library system in the United States. But that component of the library known as the Research Libraries, which for the most part are privately supported, has no counterpart in size or scope in any other municipal library system in the United States. It is the research collections in the New York Public Library system that this Guide is intended to describe. It will be helpful, therefore, to say a word about the nature of a research library collection.

A research library has two primary functions. First, it is one of the institutions invented by society through which the records and the glories of civilization are preserved. In one respect, therefore, the research library is a museum of books and other documents. Its second function is to make available for the advancement of knowledge the sources of information, the spurs to the imagination, contained within the works it preserves. These two functions often overlap. In acquiring the original manuscript of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, for example, the New York Public Library was obviously adding a museum piece to its collection. Because the manuscript is so different from the final version published in 1922, and because it contains revisions and remarks by Ezra Pound, it is also a rich resource for scholarly research.

Except for the four subject fields already mentioned--law, medicine, theology, and pedagogy--the Research Libraries of the New York Public Library have developed collections of excellence in most subject fields, and in several areas the collections are of special significance and distinction. In the fields of the humanities and fine arts, the performing arts, the social sciences, and science and technology, the Research Libraries over the past century and a quarter have gradually increased their collections in a fashion impossible to duplicate today. And, except for motion pictures and videotapes, which have been collected only in the fields of black culture, dance, and theatre, no form of document has been excluded. Printed books and pamphlets, serial and.periodical publications, broadsides and other printed ephemera, manuscripts and archives, maps, prints, drawings, sheet music, and phonorecords have all been collected. Material that may appear to be relatively insignificant has found a home in the Research Libraries alongside some of the most distinguished collections of rare books and manuscripts in existence. The choice of materials has not been affected by what librarians or the contemporary public regard as good or important. Recognizing that standards of taste and value change with time, curators have made an attempt to record life as it passes, with attention paid to what may seem trivial, vulgar, or evil, as well as to works representing the more obviously significant and agreeable aspects of human experience.

To be usable, library collections must be organized and made accessible. The usual method is to provide, through some scheme of classification, locations for items found in the collections, and descriptions of these items in the form of entries in the library catalog. The catalog is used primarily to determine whether or not a library has a specific item. Through it, a library's holdings of the works of a given author, or the materials available for a narrow subject, may also be ascertained. Beyond these possibilities, however, the alphabetical or dictionary catalog cannot provide a clear, general picture of a library's holdings or an idea of its strengths and weaknesses.

This Guide provides a quite different approach to the collections. Its purpose is to describe them discursively, subject by subject, and evaluate them at the same time. As William V. Jackson points out in his Introduction, few attempts of this kind have been made. One of the most successful was Karl Brown's Guide to the Reference Collections of The New York Public Library, published by the library in 1941. Brown's work was panoramic: It was as if he had photographed aerial views of the collections, class by class, zooming in on the most important items as he proceeded. In compiling this Guide, Sam P. Williams has been unable to follow Brown's method, because the collections have doubled since the publication of Brown's Guide, and also because, beginning in 1956, materials have been shelved by size rather than class in many subject areas. Williams has thus presented his descriptions by broad subject coverage, rather than by following a detailed classification system or a scheme based primarily on the administrative organization of the collections.

The Guide will provide the prospective user of the Research Libraries with an idea of what he may expect to find in the collections and where it may be found. It will give the researcher and the scholar an awareness of the interrelationships of materials in the collections and of important resources that might otherwise be overlooked. It will be useful to new library staff members as they seek to familiarize themselves with the collections, especially in subject fields outside their areas of assignment.

It will serve reference librarians outside the library, and many others in the book world as well, as an aid in referring scholars to particular materials. It will provide a basis for planning, with other libraries, programs of cooperative collection development and cooperative service.

Work on this Guide started in 1965 with funds made available from a grant by the Old Dominion Foundation, now superseded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and was completed with funds bequeathed to the library by Emily E. F. Skeel. Publication was assisted by a grant from the Mellon Foundation. Williams was aided in his compilation by many members of the staff of the library, especially by the chiefs of divisions of the Research Libraries and curators of collections. Lewis M. Stark and the late Gerald D. McDonald helped review many of the chapters, and David V. Erdman, editor of library publications, contributed valuable suggestions. Walter J. Zervas was tireless and resourceful in putting the manuscript into its final draft form. The library is greatly indebted to all who have contributed to the makïng of this Guide to its resources.

James W. Henderson
Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Research Libraries

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