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Increasing Access to Vertical Files

By Maggie Schreiner

Posted on February 6, 2019

Over the past several months, we’ve been hard at work in the Othmer Library to improve access to our vertical files. This collection was assembled over the past century by library staff to provide quick reference on a wide variety of topics relevant to Brooklyn and Brooklynites. A vertical file is often comprised of pamphlets, newspaper clippings, and other published materials, arranged in a filing cabinet. This system of organization was created by Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, and was so acclaimed that it won a gold prize in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair! [1]

Our vertical file collection is a rich source of information on topics that might not otherwise be well-represented in our collections, including smaller Brooklyn neighborhoods, lesser known institutions and organizations, and immigrant communities. These files also provide an eclectic source of information on popular topics, such as prominent buildings and notable individuals. Previously, researchers could access information about our vertical files through a PDF inventory, available in our reading room and through a hard-to-find link on our website. This project created a finding aid for our vertical files, making these materials discoverable through our search portal alongside our traditional archival collections.

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“The Good News,” May 1977; Brooklyn Historical Society vertical files collection, ARC.315, Drawer 5, Folder Neighborhoods -- Prospect Lefferts Garden; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Over the past several months, we’ve been hard at work in the Othmer Library to improve access to our vertical files. This collection was assembled over the past century by library staff to provide quick reference on a wide variety of topics relevant to Brooklyn and Brooklynites. A vertical file is often comprised of pamphlets, newspaper clippings, and other published materials, arranged in a filing cabinet. This system of organization was created by Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, and was so acclaimed that it won a gold prize in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair! [1]

Our vertical file collection is a rich source of information on topics that might not otherwise be well-represented in our collections, including smaller Brooklyn neighborhoods, lesser known institutions and organizations, and immigrant communities. These files also provide an eclectic source of information on popular topics, such as prominent buildings and notable individuals. Previously, researchers could access information about our vertical files through a PDF inventory, available in our reading room and through a hard-to-find link on our website. This project created a finding aid for our vertical files, making these materials discoverable through our search portal alongside our traditional archival collections.

This project also provided an opportunity to address an additional issue: the existence of 25 boxes of assorted archival material in our collections storage area. These boxes were created in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the BHS Pierrepont location was closed for renovations, and our library and archival collections were in storage. The boxes consisted of materials that had been out on loan when the building was packed up, were pulled for temporary exhibitions, or were donated during the time that the building was closed. Our amazing library volunteer Lena Evers-Hillstrom carefully went through each box, placing materials in appropriate vertical file folders and re-incorporating materials back into their original archival collections. Additionally, new folders were created for subjects that previously had not been represented at all in the vertical files, such as the LGBT community and DUMBO.

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“Brooklyn Queens Expressway,” 1952; Brooklyn Historical Society vertical files collection, ARC.315, Drawer 7, Folder Transportation-General; Brooklyn Historical Society.

This project also provided an opportunity to address an additional issue: the existence of 25 boxes of assorted archival material in our collections storage area. These boxes were created in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the BHS Pierrepont location was closed for renovations, and our library and archival collections were in storage. The boxes consisted of materials that had been out on loan when the building was packed up, were pulled for temporary exhibitions, or were donated during the time that the building was closed. Our amazing library volunteer Lena Evers-Hillstrom carefully went through each box, placing materials in appropriate vertical file folders and re-incorporating materials back into their original archival collections. Additionally, new folders were created for subjects that previously had not been represented at all in the vertical files, such as the LGBT community and DUMBO.

The result is a vastly expanded vertical files collection, stored in four brand new filing cabinets, updates to over twenty-five archival collections, and a number of items returned or refiled with to their original archival collections! You do not need an appointment to view materials held in the vertical files. Please come into the Othmer Library during our open hours (Wednesdays through Saturdays, 1-5pm) and check out this expanded resource!

by Maggie Schreiner and Lena Evers-Hillstrom

[1] Levy, David M., Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age. Arcade, 2001. P 68-69.

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