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Guide to the New-York Historical Society Collection Accession Registers
1841-1962, 2002

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

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Larry Weimer

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on August 05, 2022
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical/Historical Note

In all likelihood, the administrative history of the accession ledgers represented in this record group starts on January 4, 1842. At the New-York Historical Society meeting on that date, as recorded in the minutes, the members in attendance dispensed with the customary recording of recent donations, directing that they be included in the book designated for that purpose. It is quite likely that the book of donations, with entries dating from December 10, 1841, that opens this record group, is the book referred to in the minutes.

January 1842 seems to have marked a change only in the specific recordkeeping practice for donations. Founded in 1804, N-YHS's first constitution established a Standing Committee to solicit and receive donations, and the by-laws specified that the Committee record the donations on its books and report on them at the Society's meetings. (See the Related Materials Note.) In 1829, though, the Standing Committee was abolished. The responsibility for recordkeeping for accessions had likely fallen fully on the Librarian by then, and it was the Librarian who reported new donations at the Society meetings. These donations would often be entered into the minutes, though not always. While the various minute books from N-YHS's early decades include lists of acquisitions to the library and "cabinet," it is not certain how complete the lists are.

The direction in January 1842 to enter donations into a designated set of books may have been intended both to save time at meetings and to rationalize the recordkeeping for accessions. Nonetheless, the extant records indicate that some level of inconsistency remained in the maintenance of the accession registers while, on the other hand, lists of acquisitions continued to appear at times in the Society meeting minutes. Yet by about 1861 the use of the accession registers appears to be more consistent, though it remains uncertain how complete they are.

To some extent, the accession registers reflect N-YHS's organization and increasing professionalization in the twentieth century. From the earliest registers in the 1840s until 1924, one set of ledgers included all forms of donations, such as print matter, museum artifacts, manuscripts, photographs, and other forms. This was consistent with the fact that the Librarian was responsible for all these collections, as was the very small staff reporting to him. The spin-off in 1924 of museum and manuscript accessions from the library register under Librarian Alexander Wall may have been just one of his innovations aimed at improving the organization's professional practices, in this case facilitating the reporting and control of accessions by category. The spin-off of the map and Print Room accessions in 1942 may have served a similar purpose, though by then it also followed changes in the organization.

The use of the museum register ceased in 1938. There is no known documented reason for this, but it is possible that maintaining a handwritten list of new acquisitions in an oversize ledger book may have seemed an outdated practice to the newly-installed museum professionals that arrived that year. The century old registers may have been abandoned in favor of Registrar procedures, object files, Museum and Art Committee reports to the new Board of Trustees, and other recordkeeping practices. The registers continued to be used on the library side of the organization until 1962 when entries stopped.