Guide to the Research Collections



The growth of the American history collection in the New York Public Library started when Joseph Green Cogswell began to assemble books for the Astor Library, and when James Lenox turned to the collecting of Americana, a field in which he was to become preeminent. Lenox was interested in the discovery, exploration, and early colonization of America; he emphasized the rare and often costly books through which the New World was first introduced to the Old. Most of the books acquired by Lenox are now in the library's Rare Book Division.

The Astor Library, under the guidance of Cogswell, was intent on bringing together all of the books on the Americas which had value for historical research. When the Astor Library building was opened in 1854, historical materials constituted a quarter of the holdings; a larger space was assigned to this collection than to any other, with the intention of making it the most complete. It was already strong in the early Spanish writers, the voyages, and the accounts of the first settlements, but in the collection of more modern works there were serious deficiencies.

These deficiencies were largely overcome through the acquisition of the library of the American historian George Bancroft, which was particularly strong in eighteenth-century United States history, and the Ford collection, a vast library notable for its many United States pamphlets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The library has continued to build its American history collections by gift and by the systematic purchase of current material and older material as it becomes available. Most areas of the subject are collected comprehensively. Major exceptions to this policy are noted in the following discussions.

This large, well-rounded research collection reflects the development of the New World from the earliest times to the present. It is particularly strong in American Indian material, in pamphlets relating to political history, and in works dealing with discovery, exploration, and settlement. It also reflects the traditional concern of the library for ephemeral materials; the policy of book selection which gives emphasis to acquiring the old and the new; a belief that weeding would defeat the stated purposes of the collection; and a view of historical research which considers the history of British Columbia or Peru no less significant than that of the State of New York.

In 1961, G. K. Hall & Company published the Dictionary Catalog of the History of the Americas Collection, The New York Public Library in 28 volumes, reproducing 554,000 cards. The analytical cards are of particular importance, for the library early developed a useful reference aid by the indexing of important articles found in scholarly journals.