Most of the questions posed to the YU Archives are not things we have at our fingertips. Sure, there is lots of information we know almost off the tops of our heads from our many years working with Yeshiva’s historical records, or that we can quickly find out. But more often, we need to dig into the records to try and find an answer. This often is much more complicated than it may seem to our patrons because of the way archival records are maintained. For example, in researching who the first female dean at YU was, it would have been a simple matter to go to the file containing that information — if only one had existed. Instead, we consulted past catalogs of various schools, numerous press releases, biographical files of administrators, and more, to determine who this was. (The answer, and more about early women in leadership roles at YU, can be read here).

Probably the most exciting aspects of archival work are the discoveries made when delving into the records. In researching YU’s 1965 purchase of 55 Fifth Avenue recently, (currently the Brookdale Center and location of the Cardozo School of Law), we came across a document describing the site’s history. We learned that the merchant William Lenox built a Gothic Revival brownstone mansion at its northeast corner for $100,000 in the 1850s, in which he collected the library that formed part of the New York Public Library’s Research Division. Additionally, the Zionist Organization of America had its offices there at the time of the 1917 Balfour Declaration announcing the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

We do our best to keep track of what we’ve found so we don’t duplicate our work (which is its own workflow challenge!) After doing comprehensive research into a topic, we preserve our findings, so this information is readily accessible to us and our patrons from now on. In library parlance, this is called Ready Reference. Some of the topics we’ve researched are various individuals’ relationship with YU, Nobel Prize winners’ involvement with YU, and one that is asked of us almost every February – YU’s connection with U.S. Presidents (written about here).

Very little of our holdings of YU material has been digitized, so, for the most part, we’re digging into physical files. As we (and many other archival institutions) know, scanning, describing and maintaining historical records is a costly endeavor. This is especially true since our role as stewards of these records requires us to preserve them according to archival best practices regardless of their format. So just like we rehouse paper files into archival-quality folders and containers, digital records need be maintained in uncompressed, high resolution file formats, which takes longer to create and requires huge amounts of storage space. With rare exceptions, running records through a feeder and getting “quick and dirty” digital files with little or no metadata is not something we ever do. After all, you’ve entrusted us with preserving YU’s history for future generations, and we’re in it for the long haul.

Submitted by Deena Schwimmer, Archivist


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