BY JAMES FARRELL
Underground, beneath the hustle and bustle of the Queens Library’s central branch in Jamaica, Queens’ history sits protected in the Queens Library archives. The archives contain thousands of documents—maps, newspaper clippings, photos and more—that help studious researchers and curious residents alike learn more about the borough of Queens, as well as the other Long Island counties.
“It’s history; it’s fascinating history,” said Judith Todman, an archivist who works in the archive space. “And there are things in this collection that you will not find anywhere else. It’s unique.”
The archives at Queens Library were recently renovated and moved from the second floor of the library building to the climate-controlled basement to allow for better preservation. Coupled with a digitalization project that has put 12,000 of the more than 50,000 historical items in the archives online, the revamped archives offer the same access to rare historical documents that they always have, but in a sleek new space. The Queens Tribune recently had an opportunity to look at some of what the archives have to offer, with Todman as a guide.
“It’s still open, and welcoming and appealing to researchers—those that are just coming in for the first time to use our services and those who are veterans of our services as well,” said Todman of the new space.
When you first walk into the archives and look to the right, you’ll see the library’s old card catalogue up against the wall. The catalogue indexes every book in the library from before the 1990s, when the indexing system moved online. Additionally, the catalogue can direct visitors to a variety of different resources tucked away in the library files, including the genealogy of Long Island’s founding families, which trace back to the 1600s.
A large portion of the archives’ collection is stored in the vertical files, a compilation of removable file folders that contain information on a wide range of historical subject matter. The files are organized based on neighborhood and subject, with information that can help history buffs track neighborhood history with regard to housing, parks, transportation, churches, farms, development and more. Flushing, Long Island City and Jamaica have the biggest collections.
Todman opened one file at random; it was about Flushing housing. Inside, there were newspaper clippings from old newspapers, like an article from 1949 titled “Financial Aid Asked of State to End Slums.” There was also a copy of a 1925 newsletter from the Queens Chamber of Commerce discussing projects by the Toma Development Company on Sanford Avenue. Todman says that these files would help someone understand neighborhoods’ fluctuating histories.
“It’s talking about the housing development, you know, co-ops, condos, how people feel about development,” she said.
While some of the collections are online, visitors must come in to the archives knowing what they are hoping to look at. Then, the archives staff can direct visitors to the appropriate location and provide one-on-one service.
Tucked in the shelves along the archives’ walls are enormous leather-backed books. These books make up the library’s extensive collection of maps, which document the street names, neighborhood layouts and building-lot information from both the present and the past in Queens. The maps are color-coded to reflect building size and style, and they include previous street names alongside newer ones—Jamaica Avenue, for instance, was once “Fulton Street.” They are occasionally updated, with pieces of paper taped over previous sections to reflect changes.
For many Queens residents, the maps serve a practical purpose.
“A lot of people have to deal with the Department of Buildings, and the Department of Buildings wants to know, was your property in existence prior to 1960?” Todman said.
But like many things in the archives, the maps also help serve a nostalgic purpose, allowing residents to trace long-lost bastions of the community.
“People want to know what was here before and what were the different street names … That’s why this department is so important,” she said. “We want to know what’s happened, who was here before us.”
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.