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Guide to the New-York Historical Society Management Committee Records
1804-1938
 NYHS-RG 1

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Larry Weimer

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on July 24, 2017
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical/Historical Note

From its founding in 1804 until late 1937, when a corporate governance structure with a Board of Trustees was established, the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) was governed by its general membership. Although N-YHS’s Constitution and By-Laws were revised many times, for over one hundred years, until 1917, regular meetings of the members were required to be held at least quarterly. Special meetings were also often called. At these meetings, in addition to hearing presentations on historical and other topics or conducting a special event, business matters were considered by the members present, such as accepting new members, considering major purchases, accepting donations, establishing collection access policies, and overseeing activities related to the collections and other aspects of the organization. At the January meeting of each year, the members held their annual election for officers, who served one year terms, and named members to the standing committees.

Although the general membership deliberated and voted on business matters at their meetings, many matters were referred to either standing or ad hoc committees for consideration and for reporting back to the membership. Of the standing committees, the most longstanding and ultimately most important was the Executive Committee. Created in November 1842, the Executive Committee lasted for the next ninety years, until it was replaced by the newly formed Board of Trustees in the organizational restructuring of November 1937. Over its lifetime, an increasing degree of responsibility was placed with the Executive Committee. By the 1890s, all standing committees existed as subcommittees of the Executive, including the Committees on Finance, Papers (called Lectures, beginning 1913), Library, Publications, Anniversary, Building, Fine Arts, and Membership (after 1917).

Standing committees other than the Executive existed at various times during the nineteenth century. In some instances, the Constitution and By-Laws were amended to specifically require the named committee. One of these was the Committee on Fine Arts, which was formed in March 1856 for the purpose of expanding N-YHS's holdings in that regard; the committee lasted until May 1895 when it was deleted from the N-YHS governing documents and replaced by a sub-committee of the Executive Committee. Various committees related to buildings, including fundraising and construction oversight, were formed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A Field Exploration Committee, headed by William L. Calver, existed from 1918 to 1937 for the purpose of conducting archaeological digs and other field research. N-YHS’s founding Constitution included a so-called Standing Committee, elected by the members, to solicit donations and develop plans for N-YHS’s operations; this committee lasted until 1829. In 1817, various committees, including one on mineralogy, were formed as N-YHS expanded its collecting focus.

In addition to standing committees, through the nineteenth century, and especially in the earliest decades, ad hoc, or short term, committees of two or more members would be formed at the member meetings for the purpose of pursuing various specific initiatives. These initiatives included, among other things, making arrangements for a given year’s anniversary celebration speaker, negotiating for available manuscript collections, overseeing production of a publication or building construction, or auditing the Treasurer’s accounts. Over time, the Executive Committee absorbed these functions, but in any case it was the membership that conducted these affairs. Indeed, into the early decades of the twentieth century, N-YHS had less than ten staff members, most of whom were responsible for library support, facilities maintenance, or clerical work. Much of the managerial level work was carried out by the elected officers, especially by the Librarian, who acted as something of a chief operating officer and was responsible for N-YHS’s entire range of collections and activities.

Despite the growing importance of the Executive Committee, until 1917 much business was still brought to the regular member meetings for discussion and final resolution. In 1917, N-YHS’s Constitution and By-Laws were amended to place virtually all governance and management powers with the Executive Committee, which comprised all N-YHS officers and twelve other members named by the President. The general membership’s role in business matters was consequently reduced, mostly to electing officers. This role, too, had been reduced. Prior to 1914, these elections were held annually, at the regular January meeting; beginning with the 1914 election, the terms of office were extended to three years. Consequently, with a 3-year election cycle and the Executive Committee's increased authority in place, regular membership business meetings were held only every three years after 1917. This cycle lasted until the governance changes of 1937, which ended the participation, however limited in practical effect, of the members in the management of the Society and converted the Executive Committee into an independent Board of Trustees.

(Principal sources for the above were R.W.G. Vail's Knickerbocker Birthday, N-YHS's Annual Reports, and the records themselves.)