Archivist & Records Manager
Public Design Commission of the City of New York
As a “lone arranger,” I’m hesitant to provide tips and tricks for other lone arrangers. As we know, we each face challenges as varied and unique as our own archival collections. Our collections don’t always follow the rules and we aren’t always able to follow professional “best practices” due to staffing or budget concerns. In my case, I was lucky to take up the reigns in an archive that didn’t require a systematic structural or organizational overhaul. Moreover, I was lucky to join an agency that values its archival collection and recognizes its unique historical picture of how the public landscape of New York City has evolved over time.
The Public Design Commission was established as the Municipal Art Commission by the New York City Charter in 1898. The Commission was tasked with the oversight of all public artworks and monuments, but its scope quickly expanded to include public structures and open spaces. In 2008, the agency was renamed the Public Design Commission to better reflect its mission. The Commission reviews permanent works of architecture, landscape architecture, and art proposed on or over City-owned property. The Commission comprises 11 members and includes an architect, landscape architect, painter, sculptor, and three lay members, as well as representatives of the Brooklyn Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Public Library, and the Mayor. The Commission also acts as caretaker and curator of the City’s public art collection, which is located throughout the city’s public buildings and open spaces. The Design Commission is a decidedly small city agency, with only 6 full time staff members.
The Commission maintains an extensive archive of projects reviewed by the Commission since 1902, documenting more than 7,000 sites throughout New York City and including tens of thousands of individual project records. The archive contains approximately 2,100 linear feet of records and continues to grow by approximately 1-2 linear feet per month, and contains original documents, drawings, photographs, and architectural plans. The archive informs the Commission’s review of current projects and provides a valuable resource to researchers. In addition, the archive holds special collections that were acquired as reference material by Commission members and staff over our 119 year history.
Though functioning without an archivist for 115 years, the Commission staff thankfully took great care to preserve a common sense filing system and preserve the records as best they could. In fact, the filing system used today dates back to 1902. Unlike many archives, this archive is very much alive. Everything submitted to and approved by the Commission is considered an active and permanent record. Our record series, which we define as a single location (for example: a building, park or public artwork) continue to grow as new projects are proposed and approved at new and existing sites. Each location is assigned a series number. Each document that was reviewed and approved by the Commission for a public project is assigned a letter. Aside from oversized bound or rolled architectural drawings, everything can be logically located by its series number. The downside of this system is that the collection physically expands from within, requiring periodic shifting of boxes to create room to grow.
Public Design Commission records are legal public documents and are available by appointment to the public upon request on a first-come, first-served basis. I usually handle approximately 2 research requests per week either remotely or by appointment in the archive. The archive handles research requests from three distinct groups: staff, city agencies, and the public. Approximately 80-100 project records are requested by staff each month as reference material for new city projects. City agency staff also reviews our records for the same purpose, often filling in gaps in their own recordkeeping. Lastly, our archive supports research by outside architects, artists and designers, students, historians, and citizens interested in public projects.
The Design Commission hired its first archivist (yours truly) in 2013 to oversee and maintain archival records and provide research services for staff, other city agencies, and the public. Being the first archivist at an institution can be overwhelming, but thankfully I was brought into an agency that historically loved and maintained their archive. Therefore, from the outset, I was able to focus on promoting, preserving, and making the archive more inviting to researchers, instead of reinventing the file system wheel. In 2013, the Commission launched a long-term preservation project to digitize the oldest and most fragile materials in the collection, increasing staff and public access to these historic documents while preserving the originals. As of 2017, we have digitized over 16,000 individual documents with the help of staff, interns and two digitization grants awarded by the New York State Archives in 2014 and 2016. These records are available to the public upon request and are periodically posted on our Flickr, Tumblr, and Twitter pages. All digitized material is linked to our database and available remotely to staff. This digitization project has significantly reduced the handling of our oldest records which are still actively reviewed by staff.
The digitization project easily lent itself to promoting the archive and inviting researchers to use our records. By improving our public face on the Design Commission website and on social media, we created a more open and user friendly environment. In 2013 we received only 34 research requests, but by 2016 we received 87 research requests.
I continue to look for ways to promote the archive, including providing after hours tours. We’ve recently added a public portal for archive tours every other month and hope to expand to offer tours for city students. As a lone arranger, I hope to continue finding ways to highlight and disseminate the Commission’s singular holdings, a goal I imagine many of us share for our own unique materials.