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In the 1947 annual report, the librarian wrote that the library needed to hire a dozen catalogers, and Vail pointed out that "the circumstances of history have left us with amazingly rich resources but without adequate funds for their prepa­ration and processing. Most of the library still lacks adequate cataloguing." Sig­naling the importance of cataloging to the Society's long-term success, Vail hired additional catalogers in the library even as five staff positions elsewhere in the Society were eliminated. Vail wrote: "Since it is the chief function of the Society to give aid to American historical students and writers through our library, that department has been somewhat enlarged so that we may provide better Reading Room service and begin the task of processing our century-old backlog of uncatalogued books."

As the Society entered the 1950s, it was emerging from a difficult period in which its aspirations had begun to exceed its financial resources. Its already diffi­cult mandate to operate both a library and a museum was exacerbated by pres­sures to provide educational programming to the public. Committed to avoiding operating deficits, the Society held down salaries and even laid off some em­ployees. The financial squeeze strained what management regarded as its core mission and forced the Society to make difficult strategic decisions. Cuts were made in some areas to divert resources to more important initiatives. What remained to be seen was whether these decisions were part of a fundamental strategic change— a reframing of the Society's goals, objectives, and mission—or merely isolated reactions to the specific problems of a particular time.

Golden years, 1950-1960

It would not take long for the answer to become clear. Just when the Society was being forced to narrow its programmatic focus, relief came on the revenue side from the extraordinary performance of the financial markets. Beginning in 1949, the stock market offered tremendous returns for investors. Over the period from 1949 to 1958, the average annual compound rate of return for stocks was 17.9 percent. Out of those ten years, there were only three years when the total real return averaged less than 10 percent: 1953, 1956, and 1957 (see Table 3.1). On the plus side, there were some truly remarkable years: 1954, 1955, and 1958.

Kennedy and Schneider (1994, pp. 19, 29).

It is clear from the annual reports that management's mood mirrored the per­formance of the market. During the difficult period of the late 1940s, stock mar­ket returns were poor. By 1952, after four years of annual returns in the markets that averaged nearly 20 percent, the worries and concerns of the late 1940s had disappeared. In his 1952 report to the board, Vail wrote, "We are proud that an ever-growing clientele comes to us for the aid our trained staff can supply from our rich historical treasures. . . . Our affairs are in good order and each year we are better able to bring a knowledge of America's history, aims and ideals to our people and especially to those new citizens who want so much to understand their adopted country and their new loyalties and responsibilities." In addition to the more positive tone prevalent in Vail's statement, note also that management's focus had once again broadened beyond the service of scholars and researchers. The goal of public education had recaptured its place of importance on the Society's agenda. Indeed, despite his earlier statements, Vail wrote in 1953 that "an edu­cational institution such as ours, to be worth its salt, must have a vigorous and growing program of service to the community and to the nation."

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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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