Municipal Neglect

By James Epstein

In the summer of 1975, at the height of New York's fiscal crisis, the Municipal Archives and Record Center was forced to close its doors when its sole employee was laid off in a wave of city-wide cutbacks. For the next seven months, the Archives' massive collection -- arguably the most important body of manuscripts and photographs relating to the city's past--sat unattended in an office space at 23 Park Row, above the storefront of J & R Music World.

The Municipal Archives has come a long way since that appalling episode: there are now 19 full-time staff members. But the story remains emblematic of the fiscal neglect that continues to this day; and more recently that neglect provides a backdrop to the recent controversy over who should take possession of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's papers.

Instead of going straight to the giant compact storage units in the basement of the Archives' present home at 31 Chambers Street, the former mayor gave his papers to the new Giuliani Center for Urban Affairs--a move that provoked a demonstration in front of City Hall, led by prominent urban historians and archivists.

But those who say these 2,114 boxes of records belong with the city have not quite focused on an even greater outrage, which ironically has provided an excuse for the former mayor's archival grab. The department's abysmal funding still imposes severe constraints on its ability to manage its holdings.

Since the Records Center spun off from the Municipal Reference Library in 1950, its holdings have moved through four different locations and two city agencies--and were nearly destroyed in a couple of near catastrophes.

Under the direction of director, Kenneth R. Cobb, the collection has grown to a massive 150,000-cubic feet, or twice the size of the New York State Archives in Albany. Its treasures include a set of tax photographs from the World War II era, with a picture of every building in the five boroughs; the assessment rolls from the past three centuries; original drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park; and the most comprehensive collection relating to criminal justice in the English-speaking world.

But caring for this collection requires resources the Archives desperately lacks. With a fiscal year 2001 budget of a paltry $1.2 million, its main deficiency has been storage. To ensure the long-term survival and readability of historical manuscripts and photographs, well-funded archives keep their collections in temperature-controlled environments.

Ira Galtman, who interned at the Records Center as a graduate student, and who currently serves as President of the New York Archivists Round Table, stresses the importance of cool air for historical collections. "Any time you don't store archival material in climate control conditions, you leave the records vulnerable to a variety of causes of damage. It's a combination of mold and insect infiltration. And the papers will become more fragile, more brittle."

But keeping millions of documents cold is costly. Two of the Archives' former locations--238 Williams Street and the Tweed Courthouse--had no air conditioning. The current headquarters at 31 Chambers Street is a climate-controlled facility, but it houses a fraction of the total holdings. Only about 20,000-cubic feet can be stored on site, which is a little less than one-seventh of the collection. The remainder is housed at a Brooklyn facility without temperature control. As matters stand, storage consumes the bulk of the Archive's funding, at $587,000 per year, but complete temperature control would cost far more. Happily, the manuscripts have held up remarkably well, but many film negatives and prints have deteriorated from heat.

While the Records Center continues to microfilm, conserve, and process its collection, it still faces a tremendous backlog, which hinders researcher's use of the collection. The mayors' papers are an egregious example: processing delays provide the justification for denying the Municipal Archives immediate custody of the Giuliani papers. According to Director Cobb, these collections serve as the "heart" of the Archives' historical treasures, and 75 percent of patrons doing research other than genealogy wind up using the mayors' papers.

Currently, the Record Center faces a two-mayor backlog. With help from the City University of New York's LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, this year it will begin processing the papers of Mayor Abraham Beame, who left office in 1977. While the Koch collection is fully catalogued, no immediate funds are available to tackle the boxes retrieved after Dinkins' demise.

But since both staff and director are used to working in an under-funded atmosphere, these papers are made accessible to researchers before they are cataloged. The Municipal Archives' credo includes allowing the public complete access soon after a collection arrives. Since preliminary inventory lists are compiled as soon as the boxes are received at 31 Chambers Street, a researcher's hunt can be narrowed to a few cartons.

"It's a city with lots of financial needs, even before 9/11," said Ira Galtman, President of the New York Archivists Roundtable. "You're competing with the money you need to pay for policemen, fire fighters, and street repair. The average person doesn't seem to be materially affected by cutting an archive's budget."

Read "Creating the Best Archives for the City" by Saul Cohen
Read "The Damage Is Already Done" by Richard Wandel

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