Behind The Scenes

Interview With Maurita Baldock, Curator of Manuscripts

Earlier this week, the New York Times took a look at the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, a group of young archivists, librarians, and historians who meet up and network around the city. One member featured was our very own Curator of Manuscripts, Maurita Baldock! But what exactly does that job entail? We sat down with Maurita for a more in-depth look at her job, journey, and some of her favorite collections.

First off, what exactly is a Manuscript?

The way I always explain it is that a Manuscript is something that’s generally unpublished. Letters, diaries, maybe a few illustrations.

Is there a reason you focused your career on Manuscripts?

I started volunteering on Saturdays when I was right out of undergrad at the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum). The only section of the institution looking for Saturday volunteers was the Manuscripts department. I studied History in undergrad, and generally when you’re a History major people say you can become a teacher or you can become an attorney.  I was working in a law firm and figured out the attorney thing wasn’t going to be for me. But I really liked Manuscripts; I thought it was cool to work with the real materials.

What about Manuscripts and archiving grabbed you?

It wasn’t that I found one thing in particular. The people I volunteered for were very knowledgeable, and seemed to really believe in what they did, and I really liked that. The archivist I volunteered for, Archie Motley, was probably in his 60s at the time and just knew everything! He had grown up in Chicago and was really into the history, and I had a lot of admiration for him. So in some ways he was sort of the inspiration.

So what brought you to New York?

I attended graduate school at NYU, getting a Masters in History with a Certificate in Archival Management and Historical Editing. Most people working with manuscripts get a Masters in Library Science but I wasn’t really sure when to do that. Eventually I did get that Masters, but I was working here at the time.

People have this idea with archiving that you spend all your day in stacks, indoors. But you previously mentioned going out to see potential collections. Clearly you’re active in finding things. Is seeking out resources a big part of your job?

A lot of it is people calling with personal collections asking if we want to take a look. A lot of my time is really spent on calling people and talking to them about what they have. Recently, one woman donated a diary and travelogue from the late 1700s of this teenager who went on to be a senator (Senator William H. Wells of Delaware). She was helping her sister clean out her house when they found it. And we were able to cross-reference the entries and timeline and confirm it belonged to this senator. Sometimes I’m amazed at what people have in their homes.

How do you decide what would be a valuable addition to our collections and what wouldn’t?

Generally if it’s older it means it’s more rare, and we’ll accept  it. But we usually take things that are content based. If people are describing their lives, what’s happening in the world around them, it’s more interesting. Particularly if it speaks with a different voice;  if it’s letters from women, or history of children, or just the “underserved.”

Within the New-York Historical Society, do you have any favorite collections or items?

The Alexander Family papers are always great. We have these fabric samples from this woman and her husband who started a dry goods store, all from the 1700s. They were all importing things from England then, nothing was really being produced here, so they were samples sent by the company to her.

We also have this letter written by Clara Harris, who lived in DC and was friends with Mrs. Lincoln. The night the Lincolns went to Fords Theater, Ulysses S. Grant and his wife were supposed to go with them, but at the last minute they invited Clara Harris and her fiancée, who had just returned from fighting in the Civil War. So we have a letter from her to her friend describing that night, and how terrible it was.

We really do have some amazing stuff. You can find something new every day.

Why do you think this work, and this job, are important?

You have to believe in the collections. A lot of times I say that I’m preserving the past but also collecting for the future. It’s important to make sure that the stuff that’s already here and needs attention gets more attention, but it’s also important to think about stuff that’s coming in, and how future generations will see what we’re collecting now. We have some materials from the Westside Crime Prevention Program and community meetings from when the Upper West Side wasn’t as safe. There are slideshows of what a drug deal looks like, what a crack vial looks like, how to contact the police if you see something like that going on, or if you suspect your neighbors are drug dealers. And already the neighborhood has totally changed, and now that’s  a piece of history, even though it was from 30 years ago.

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