Saturday, February 2, 2013

An Online Archival Collection of the New York Public Library

I often tell people that most material in archives will probably never be online because it is not cost effective.  It costs money to scan everything, prepare the files, and create and maintain a Web site.  This is why companies such as charge subscriptions.  A lot of archival material is of limited appeal to the general public and it would be difficult to recoup operating costs.

That said, it's nice when a benefactor steps in to cover the costs of digitization and material can be made available freely.  This is what has happened with one of the New York Public Library's archival collections, the Thomas Addis Emmet Collection.  Thanks to a gift from the Polonsky Foundation, the collection is now available online in its entirety.

The Thomas Addis Emmet Collection contains more than 10,000 handwritten letters and documents from the time of America's founding and earlier, including a manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson's handwriting.  The dates of the documents range from 1483 to 1876, with the majority falling between 1700 and 1800.  Previously, researchers needed to visit the library in person to read the materials in the collection. Now this resource is freely available online to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

The main link above takes you to an overview of the collection.  Clicking on "Detailed description" takes you to the digitized collection itself, which is broken up into 28 topics.  Some examples of the topics in the collection are the Continental Congress of 1774, the Declaration of Independence, Signers to the Declaration of Independence, the Siege of Savannah 1779, Irving's Life of Washington, and Boundary Line Controversy.

At the end of the list is Miscellaneous Manuscripts.  I decided to look in there to see what was classified as miscellaneous.  I found a two-page letter dated September 18, 1757 to Mr. David Mendes Dacosta, a contractor for 100 bread wagons for Hessian troops.  His name sounds like a Sephardic Jewish one.  Maybe a descendant of his will find the collection and read the letter written to his ancestor.

Warning:  I have a pretty fast Internet connection, but I found the site painfully slow to load, both on the overview page and the pages with documents.  The image viewer appears to be designed to prevent downloading of images; when I tried to save an image, I would get one piece of it (similar to the Ellis Island Database).  I am using a Mac, however, so perhaps it works differently on a PC.

There does not appear to be an index or a finding aid for the collection.  (If I missed it, please tell me where it is!)  There is a link on the bottom of the page to "Find Archival Materials", but when I tried searching there for the Mendes Dacosta letter, it was not found.  So, as is common with many archival collections, it looks like you will need to browse and see what's there.


  1. As a PC user, I thought I'd give the "saving image" challenge a go. I viewed this collection both in Google Chrome and in IE, and I was able to get around the problems of saving an image in this way when working in IE. Chrome wasn't as happy with my trying to do a work-around. But here's the steps I took.

    1. Select a document to view.
    2. On the document viewing page, there is a "print" option at the bottom. Click that.
    3. This pops up a print window, allowing me to choose a printer. Click "cancel" (because I don't really want to send it to a printer).
    4. That causes a box to pop-up saying something like "the web page you are viewing is trying to close this page - do you want to close it?" I clicked "no."
    5. At that point, you have an image in a pop-up window that you can right-click and "save picture as." Save it wherever you choose and you should be able to view it with whatever program you normally view JPEG files.

    Hope that helps.

    1. Thanks for the tip! I'll be at a PC later today and will give it a try.


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