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Chapter Three of the story of the New-York Historical Society

Chapter three: professionalization and postwar expansion, 1921-1959

Alexander j. wall builds a professional institution, 1921-1944

A staff member since the age of fourteen, Alexander J. Wall had been Robert Kelby's assistant for more than twenty years and was therefore intimately famil­iar with the library and its holdings. Even more than his knowledge of the col­lections, it was Wall's personality and charisma that had the most impact on the Society. One biographer observed that "few people enjoyed a party with com­panionable friends more than he did" and that "this quality was a predominant reason for his success in life."

Richards (1984, p. 68).
Considering Wall's nature, it is not surprising that following his installation as librarian, the Society took steps to become both more open to the public and more active in issues of importance to a broader segment of its potential constituents.

One of the many successes of Wall's tenure was bridging the gap between the historical societies and the scholarly community, something that previous Society leaders had failed to accomplish. With a particular passion for preserva­tion, Wall led historical society professionals in urging the federal government to establish a national archive. In addition, Wall's dedication to this cause led to his later involvement as one of the organizers of the American Association for State and Local History. Wall's interests were not confined to historical preserva­tion; he also actively cultivated relationships with the academic community. In 1925, he established a $300 New-York Historical Society Scholarship at Colum­bia "to encourage further study and investigation in the field of history." Although the scholarship was discontinued due to lack of funds in 1933, it represented the first step in the Society's relationship with Columbia, a relationship that eventu­ally led to Wall's appointment as an associate in history, teaching a seminar titled Resources and Methods of an American Historical Society. Wall's simulta­neous roles as a spokesperson for historical professionals and as a scholar teach­ing at a respected university helped propel The New-York Historical Society into the mainstream of professional library and scholarly activity.

During his tenure, Wall encountered the natural contradictions faced by a library trying to serve both a relatively exclusive community (scholars) and the wider populace. Wall's efforts to resolve this tension emphasized the importance of education in bringing history to a broad audience. For the Society, this approach had both practical and philosophical implications. In 1928, the state legislature approved Wall's petition to modify the Society's act of incorporation to include language specifically recognizing its educational mission. This step was more than a legalistic gesture; gifts and bequests to educational institutions were not subject to state taxes. But Wall's motivation was not just financial; he believed strongly in the Society's educational responsibility. In an article published in the New-York Historical Society Quarterly in April 1938, Wall wrote, "Historical societies should have an important place in education. In the past we have failed to achieve this position primarily because we have been too ready to believe that historical in­vestigation belonged to the few and that those who entered our portals treaded on holy ground. . . . But times have changed and people no longer have to knock at our doors for they should be open. And our work should be an inspiration to in­terest the many in the satisfying and unending joy of research and investigation."

Wall (1938, p. 66).
The Quarterly was one vehicle Wall relied on to "interest the many." Conceived by Wall primarily to publicize the work of the Society, the Quarterly enjoyed a solid reputation in the field of historical society journals. As its editor, Wall also used the Quarterly to publicize his position on issues of importance to the Society and to the profession, as well as to publish some of the library's treasures that were not appropriate for inclusion in more formal publications of the library's collections.
Richards (1984, p. 77).

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Source:  OpenStax, The new-york historical society: lessons from one nonprofit's long struggle for survival. OpenStax CNX. Mar 28, 2008 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10518/1.1
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