Guide to the Research Collections



In 1941 the New York Public Library published a Guide to the Reference Collections of the New York Public Library by Karl Brown. In reviewing the publication, Keyes D. Metcalf, former chief of the Reference Department (as the Research Libraries were named at that time) and then director of the Harvard University Library, called the work "a landmark."1 This 416-page "guide, index, or handbook" (as Brown put it) has served the library's users and staff, not to mention scholars and librarians outside New York City, as a valuable tool for understanding the wealth of resources assembled over nearly a century. In this volume, under a slightly different title, we present a new guide to a collection greatly enriched over an additional thirty years.

Let us look for a moment at the library world of 1941, when Brown's Guide was released as a book (after having appeared seriatim in the pages of the library's Bulletin from May 1935 to February 1941). At that time there were relatively few similar publications. In 1934 Harvard had issued the fourth edition of A. C. Potter's The Library of Harvard University: Descriptive and Historical Notes (of which no later editions have appeared) and other libraries-- such as the Newberry Library, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Hoover Institution--had prepared guides or handbooks; but the resources of the Library of Congress and those of such universities as Yale, Columbia, Illinois, and California (Berkeley) were (and remain) undescribed. To be sure, on a different level, in 1938 the American Library Association had published Robert B. Downs's Resources of Southern Libraries, the first attempt "to study all classes of library research materials distributed over a large region,"2 and Downs soon thereafter embarked upon the preparation of Resources of New York City Libraries, for which he received permission to draw upon the Brown volume. Attempts to describe and evaluate scholarly collections in the United States predate this period (examples survive from the nineteenth century), but the number of guides to the resources of the nation's large research libraries was limited in 1941, and has remained so. Indeed, even now it appears quite unlikely that the near future will see realization of Metcalf's hope for similar works for all members of the Association of Research Libraries.


Although a precise definition of a "guide to resources" is difficult, such a work is essentially the description-- not the listing--of special collections and subject strengths in one or more libraries. Using a narrative style, a guide to resources describes holdings in such terms as their nature and extent, language and geographic spread, degree of comprehensiveness, unique materials (e.g., first editions and manuscripts), nonbook items present, special emphases or areas of note within the total field being reviewed, and supporting and related materials in other parts of the collection.

It might be well to discriminate at this point between a guide to resources (as defined above) and works that provide information about resources in other ways. The latter group includes handbooks, checklists, bibliographies, calendars, library surveys, union lists, union catalogs, and printed book catalogs (presently enjoying a renaissance as a result of the application of the techniques of photographic reproduction and the computer to library files). All of these provide information on resources, but focus on specific titles rather than the description of subject collections or other groups of materials.

Each guide to resources varies in the degree to which it resembles the theoretical definition and in the arrangement of its information. Karl Brown, for reasons stated in the Introduction to his Guide, found it advantageous to present his material following the classes in the classification schedule devised by John Shaw Billings for the New York Public Library. Although basically a subject arrangement which moves from biography (A), through history (B-I), to geography (K-L), and then to art (M), literature (N), science (O-Q), philology (R), social sciences (S-T), technology (V), medicine (W), law (X), philosophy (Y), and finally religion (Z), this scheme was of course a unique one, reflecting both Billings' ideas and the special characteristics of the library's collections, especially in terms of the "star classes" established to provide for certain subjects (bibliography, *G and libraries, *H), or forms of material (newspapers, *A; periodicals, *D; phonograph records, *L; and microfilms, *Z), or collections chiefly of material in languages not known to the average student (Orientalia, *O; Slavonic, *Q; and Jewish, *P), or groups requiring special administration (rare books, *K), or publications coming from special sources (public documents, *S and museums, *F). Even these two general categories did not include all of the library's material, as they did not make provision for the Manuscripts and Archives Division, the Spencer Collection, and certain other collections.

Brown calls the reader's attention to the fact that the Guide, "with the scheme of classification as a basis, is developed by consideration of the following points for each class or sub-class, as division occurs:

The Brown volume remained a standard bibliographic tool, although it lost some currency with the passing of time. In the years which followed, the library made few basic changes in its collecting policies, but gave new emphasis to certain fields such as the performing arts, and continued to increase its resources (from about 2,500,000 to more than 4,000,000 volumes). It received several new special collections, including the Arents Collection of Books Relating to Tobacco, the Arents Collection of Books in Parts, and the Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The library naturally continued to disseminate information about its resources through publications such as the Bulletin, its annual report, individual monographs and pamphlets, and later the series of divisional catalogs issued by G. K. Hall.4 But none of these significantly updated the Brown volume, and circumstances prevented the compilation of the 1940-45 supplement promised in the Guide. The preparation of the revised Guide was delayed until the fall of 1965, when "The Guide to the Research Collections Project" began operations. At that point some basic decisions on the nature of the project were considered: Would it serve as a supplement to Brown covering the last twenty-five years, or would it be a completely new edition? Would it follow Brown's approach and manner of presentation? What was the most appropriate and efficient methodology for the job at hand? The final decision called for a new edition, rather than a supplement to the 1 Guide, thus making it unnecessary for a user to refer to Brown except for special features. A complete rechecking of all Brown's information did not seem feasible, however, so as much of it as possible was utilized in the new Guide, with revision when necessary for size, scope, and notable additions, and with an effort to make the statements even more useful to the reader seeking information.

Another major decision was to arrange the new volume according to general subjects, rather than follow the Billings Classification Schedule. Several considerations led to this decision, one of the most important being that since July of 1956, about one-half of the library's accessions have been shelved in fixed order location, rather than according to the Billings Classification Schedule.5 Also, some holdings are separated from others merely by accident of provenance--e.g., although they may deal with English literature, they may have been acquired for the Berg Collection, or they may have a nonbook form. Thus the person interested in English literature will find the Research Libraries' rich resources described in one section of the Guide, even though the sources may be shelved in the general stacks, the Berg Collection, the Rare Book Division, the Spencer Collection, the Manuscripts and Archives Division, or even in the Performing Arts Research Center at Lincoln Center.


With these decisions made, the methodology of preparing this compilation was devised. As was explained previously, the Brown volume furnished the point of departure, and the first task was to obtain information to supplement or modify, where necessary, Brown's statements. Rather than doing this independently for each subject, it seemed wiser and more efficient to perform several preliminary operations to secure overall data which could be used throughout the new Guide. How, for example, had the collections of the Research Libraries developed from 1940 through the mid-1960s? To answer that question efficiently involved the utilization, whenever possible, of already published material, and so a literature search for references to the library's resources published during this period was undertaken. First, complete sets of the Bulletin, the library's annual report, and those of the library's own publications dealing with holdings were assembled. Second, a careful check was made of Robert B. Downs's American Library Resources: A Bibliographical Guide and its supplement,6 based not only on the index entries under "New York Public Library," but also upon annotations (e.g., "Locates copies in 11 libraries") that suggested the possibility of the library's inclusion in publications covering several research collections. The publications cited were checked to verify the nature and extent of the description, or to see whether an item on various libraries did actually cover the New York Public Library. Although this research incidentally yielded some works which had escaped the assiduous labors of Downs and his helpers, there were few cards indeed to be marked "not in Downs." The file resulting from these efforts was duplicated, one set arranged by author and the other by subject. As another check on publications, all entries from the Public Catalog under "New York Public Library" were also copied. The establishment of this bibliography made possible the development of a Resources File, used to bring together material about the research collections. Items cut from duplicate copies of the Bulletin and the annual report, reproductions of pages from monographic studies, as well as copies of memoranda and other documents prepared for internal use (generally taken or copied from the Research Libraries' administrative files), went into folders which were arranged broadly by Dewey Decimal Classification.

These two files, bringing together for the first time material about the collections, constituted the first steps taken to prepare this Guide. (Since the library has continued to incorporate new items into both files, they have become small, specialized additions to its bibliographic instruments.) At this stage occasional conversations with division chiefs and others also provided valuable clues to additional material or subject strengths to be explored later.

A third important preliminary step was to determine the extent of the Research Libraries' holdings in various subjects. Statistics resulting from censuses taken in 1921 and 1930, and the figures published in Brown (basically adjustments of the latter year), were available. Apparently the library had made little or no attempt to maintain such statistics subsequent to 1941. Since holdings of individual subjects in research collections grow at rates which do not entirely correspond with the overall rate of increase, simply projecting growth of each subject at a uniform rate was deemed unsatisfactory. There was also the question of new areas for which statistics were wanted. In order to provide for continuity and some basis of comparison, it seemed useful to utilize figures (corresponding to most of the Billings classmarks) used in 1921, 1930, and 1941--especially for those representing subjects. But a greater breakdown of holdings in science and technology and the social sciences seemed desirable. The final decision was a compromise: figures were thus compiled for many specific subjects, but certain very broad areas (e.g., the Documents, Jewish, Orientalia, and Slavonic collections) were not broken down, because there was no solution that would not be excessively time-consuming. A sampling technique yielded figures both for volumes shelved in fixed-order location and those in the general collection and elsewhere in the library; these were later modified as direct examination of shelves, discussion with division chiefs and other staff members, or other good reasons dictated. The figures presented at the beginning of sections remain, however, careful estimates of the extent of holdings in each subject.

One final preliminary operation was undertaken. Since the reader of this Guide might well be unfamiliar with the organization of the Research Libraries in relation to the subjects of interest to him, it appeared desirable to prepare a brief general statement on each division or unit, indicating its collecting responsibilities, the special indexes and files which supplement its resources, major gifts which may have influenced the development of collections, and other pertinent matters. For divisions with responsibility for a single, specific subject it was possible to prepare this at the same time as the description of resources, but for those representing area collections (e.g., Orientalia) or responsible for several subjects (e.g., General Research and Humanities Division), such statements were prepared as a part of the preliminary operations.


Completion of this essential, if time-consuming, work provided a solid foundation for preparing the descriptions of resources, subject by subject. Although the technique varied somewhat for each discipline, the following steps were common to nearly all:

With these steps taken, writing began. Allowing for differences from section to section, a typical arrangement runs as follows: (1) the extent of holdings, usually giving figures for 1921, 1930, 1941, and 1966 (occasionally for a few earlier years too) as an indication of the quantitative development of the collection; (2) the current acquisition policy, with mention where possible of those areas receiving comprehensive, representative, or selective coverage;7 (3) bibliographical and reference tools; (4) serials, with both an indication of number and types currently received and of typical back files and the extent of their completeness; and (5) subdivisions or special topics, as appropriate to the subject. Examples of such special categories include subdivisions on local history (within history sections), on major authors (literatures), on higher education (education), on magic (theatre), on Napoleon (French history), and on librarianship abroad (library science). Unique materials such as first editions and manuscripts are mentioned where appropriate. For subjects with materials dispersed in several units, the descriptions often indicate location of those not shelved with the primary group (e.g., "The Berg Collection contains ..."). Although the guide to resources, as pointed out earlier, is not a listing of authors and titles, the present compilation attempts to avoid vagueness by giving specific information such as the titles representative of serials and the name of authors and institutions whose publications are present in quantity. But this information should be considered primarily as examples of the type of material available. The reader should not infer that authors, institutions, and topics not discussed are necessarily less well represented: what is significant in the smaller library (e.g., American scholarly journals, standard reference and bibliographical tools--even those of multivolume proportions--and complete works and critical editions of major figures in all Western literatures) can safely be assumed to be in this collection of over 4,000,000 volumes.

Nevertheless it would be a mistake to presuppose that the present Guide reveals all things to all men about the collections. More importantly it does not generally compare resources of the Research Libraries with those of other institutions; the use of words such as "strong" and "significant" refers to holdings within the Research Libraries and not in comparison to other libraries. In short, we have attempted to describe accurately the collections as they are. Many of these bibliographical statements are, to some extent, subjective; that is, they are seldom the result of checking bibliographies or lists. Nor does this Guide attempt to provide reference to all publications--even those of the library itself--which mention, in one way or another, these resources; that is done in part by entries in the Public Catalog, in part by the Downs compilations, and in part by the bibliographic files assembled during the course of preparing this work.

This Guide does not attempt to chronicle the history of the Research Libraries' collections. Numerous historical facts are given because they contribute to a better understanding of present holdings, not as a systematic approach to the evolution of resources; consequently there are no chronological listings of acquisitions as in Brown. Nor does this Guide present the financial story of the building of the Research Libraries' holdings by presenting total and specific expenditures over the years, or by discussing endowed book funds and similar topics. The present volume does adhere to Brown's principle of a detailed index, in the hope that the guiding principle of arrangement by subject will cause the user fewer searches for material about each specific topic of interest.

It is the library's expectation that the Guide, which covers resources acquired through December 1969, will be kept up-to-date through regular supplements. Indeed, one supplement, for the last six months of the July 1969-June 1970 fiscal and statistical year, has already appeared.8 It is hoped that this new Guide and its supplements will prove as useful as its predecessor to the library's readers and staff, and to scholars and librarians everywhere.

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