Guide to the Research Collections



Biography is collected comprehensively by the Research Libraries, with American biography forming one of the largest groups within this subject collection of 83,000 volumes. The preponderance of materials consists of individual biographies, as the following indicates:

Biographical dictionaries and other reference works7,500 volumes
Collective biography11,000
Individual biography64,500

Biographies of subject interest are generally located with the literature pertaining to that subject, biographies of artists, for example, being maintained by the Art and Architecture Division, and those of musicians by the Music Division. Biographical information concerning a figure of the stature of Sarah Bernhardt is thus available in the General Research and Humanities Division, and further specialized materials related to her life and career are administered by the Theatre Collection of the Performing Arts Research Center.

The heavy use of biographical materials by readers and staff has resulted in the transferral of many volumes from the general collections to places of convenient use. This plan of special location applies particularly to biographical dictionaries and collective biographies. Working collections are located at the Information Desk in Room 315, at the Main Reading Room Desk, on the open shelves of the Main Reading Room, and in Preparation Services (the latter intended primarily for staff use, although available to the public). In the case of annuals and other compilations which appear at intervals, a progressive arrangement often locates the most recent volume on the open shelves; the next most recent volume, in one of the working collections; and earlier volumes not needed elsewhere, in the general collections. Locations are indicated on the catalog cards.

Other valuable sources of biographical information include encyclopedias, particularly those published abroad (a reference collection is located in the Main Reading Room), local history and genealogy, and the publications of institutions and organizations. An example of the latter type of material is found in the working collection of alumni registers kept in Preparation Services. The resources of the Manuscripts and Archives Division are notable for biographical materials, particularly for American historical, literary, business, and scientific figures.

Biographical materials in scholarly periodicals are extensively indexed by individual card entries in the Public Catalog. Special attention is given to indexing material related to figures for whom other biographical information is lacking. The catalogs of some of the divisions of the Research Libraries contain references (mainly to periodical articles) which are not included in the Public Catalog. This is particularly true in the case of the catalogs of the Art and Architecture Division, and the Music Division and the Theatre and Dance Collections at the Performing Arts Research Center. Many divisions maintain files of biographical information. For example, much elusive biographical information will be found in the extensive clipping file of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Special Indexes and Files

Art and Architecture Division

A general clipping file preserves material relating to artists, including biographies, portraits, and the like.

Dance Collection

The clipping file in the collection contains biographical information on dancers supplemented by scrapbooks and clippings given by Ruth St.

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Denis, Ted Shawn, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and others.

Economic and Public Affairs Division

A general clipping file contains biographical material relating to government officials and important financial and commercial figures. The scope and content of the file is determined by current interests, and ephemeral material is discarded when no longer pertinent.

General Research and Humanities Division

A card file arranged by subject and by occupation locates books in the Research Libraries containing current biographical sketches.

Local History and Genealogy Division

A vertical file is arranged by name of family (primarily American, although including other nationalities). All types of uncataloged materials are contained in the files, such as clippings, typescripts, and other ephemera. Supplementing the vertical file are a variety of scrapbooks for prominent American families, such as the Carnegies, Roosevelts, and Whitneys.

Another inactive card file is an index to probate notices giving details clipped primarily from notices in the New York Times. The file concentrates upon the 1920s and lacks the letters A-C. There is also a large but inactive international biographical index to scientists and aviators in the Local History and Genealogy Division (discussed in chapter 54).

Music Division

A biographical file consists of entries containing a great miscellany of biographical information about musicians and their work. A portrait index refers to portraits in many sources in the Music Division and in other locations of the Research Libraries. A clipping file in the division holds material arranged by composer's or performer's name, and broadly by subject area.

Prints Division

The division maintains a file of clippings, pamphlets, catalogs, and other material relating to print makers. The names of the persons represented are listed in the catalog of the division.

Theatre Collection

An extensive vertical file consists of clippings on theatrical figures, including motion picture, television, radio, and circus personalities. Two notable scrapbook collections, the Robinson Locke collection of dramatic scrapbooks, and the David Belasco collection of typescripts, photographs, original designs, and scrapbooks, supplement the vertical file.


Biographical Dictionaries and Collective Biographies

The collections of retrospective biographical works of this nature are substantial, with many of the standard sets such as Dictionary of National Biography, Dictionary of American Biography, and Allgemeine deutsche Biographie available in the reference collection of the Main Reading Room. Contemporary biographical collections of the "who's who" nature are also well represented, with nearly complete holdings of the publications of the United States, Canada, and Western European countries. For other areas, in particular South America, many items are far from current, although they appear to represent the latest compilations available. The General Research and Humanities Division endeavors to maintain current files despite erratic publishing.

Associated with these contemporary biographical publications are the specialized, professional, or trade "who's whos." The Research Libraries collect these publications extensively for the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, attempting to obtain material for other countries when possible. The Science and Technology Research Center acquires the membership directories of the larger scientific and engineering societies. Other biographical information is found in the very extensive holdings of United States county histories in the Local History and Genealogy Division. Biographical dictionaries of the lives of prominent men of the various states are a feature of the American History Division. Biographical data about prominent Europeans is often found in the necrologies of local and national learned society publications. Significant items are indexed in the Public Catalog.

Individual Biographies

The strong resources in this area include several outstanding collections: biography of women has been given special attention; the naval history section includes many biographies of naval officers; Negro biography is found both in the Research Libraries' general holdings and in those of the Schomburg Center; individual as well as collective biographies of New York men and women are well represented in the American History and the Local History and Genealogy Divisions.

First and early editions of the noted biographies in the English language such as Thomas Fuller's History of the Worthies of England, Johnson's Lives of the Poets, Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, and Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians are found in the Rare Book Division and the Berg Collection.

The extensive collection of shorthand periodicals in the Research Libraries has been indexed for biographical materials up to the date of the printed catalog of the collection (1935).1 There are, in addition, collective biographies for shorthand reporters, stenographers, and court reporters.

A number of scrapbooks containing newspaper and magazine clippings, postcards, and the like, supplement the books in the general collections. Most of the figures represented are North American; the most extensive holdings are those for Abraham Lincoln and Elihu Root.

Jewish Division:

Some 2,000 volumes in the resources of the Jewish Division include virtually all biographies written in Hebrew or Yiddish and

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certain biographies relating specifically to the Jews. Certain studies of subject importance are in the relevant divisions; for example, biographies of Jews notable in the arts are located in the Art and Architecture Division, those of scientific figures in the Science and Technology Research Center.

Oriental Division:

The Oriental Division collects representatively all new biographical material that is available through purchase, exchange, or gift. The division acquires materials published either in Oriental or Western languages in all areas of Asia and those areas of Africa for which the division customarily collects. The strongest section, books in Arabic and in translation on Arabic subjects, is covered by more than 500 entries in the divisional catalog.

Slavonic Division:

The holdings of more than 3,000 biographical volumes are principally in the Cyrillic alphabet and relate to Russian subjects. The division collects books comprehensively, but collects the great number of biographical pamphlets published in Eastern European countries on a representative basis. Russian royal biographies are a feature of the collection, with important items relating to Peter the Great and Catherine II.


Two extensive collections of manuscripts are of note for biographical studies. The rich holdings of the Manuscripts and Archives Division include materials relating to nearly all fields, primarily from the United States and particularly from the state of New York, and the holdings of the Berg Collection concentrate on the fields of English and American literature. Information on manuscript collections useful for biographical purposes is available in the sections devoted to the Berg Collection in "General Literature," chapter 20, "American Literature," chapter 23, and "English Literature," chapter 24 of this Guide.

Manuscripts and Archives Division:

The personalities, opinions, and careers of figures as diverse as Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant, Norman Thomas and H.L. Mencken, are documented by major collections. Diaries and correspondence are held in abundance, along with secondary biographical aids such as business papers.

One of the major series in the Manuscripts and Archives Division is classified as Personal Miscellaneous Papers, in which residents of New York State predominate. The chronological range extends from the eighteenth century; earlier materials, while present, are generally single items rather than archival groups.

Most collections contain biographical materials concerning the lives of associates and contemporaries of the central figure; typical among such collections are the papers of Horace Greeley, Samuel J. Tilden, Noah Webster, John Quinn, and Carl Van Vechten. Other archives such as the Hardwicke collection range from papers relating to Elizabeth I and James I through the personal and official papers of the eighteenth-century British diplomat Sir Luke Schaub.

The holdings of the Manuscripts and Archives Division are strengthened by extensive series. Editorial correspondence files of the Century Magazine and the Macmillan Company are essential to biographers of nineteenth-and twentieth-century literary figures; the papers of Evert A. and George L. Duyckinck contain letters of Melville, Poe, and other figures of the first half of the nineteenth century. The Alfred W. Anthony and DeCoursey Fales collections hold much material of biographical importance. The division maintains alphabetical listings of these and similar collections.