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If the conclusion reached was that keeping the collections in a single physi­cal location was no longer feasible, deciding on which collection would remain under the auspices of the Society would be an incredibly complex and contro­versial undertaking. In fact, resolving such a debate may not be possible. However, the key issues in making such a decision should not rest solely on the internal question of what the Society wants to be but rather should take the broader view of what is best for the collective cultural resources of the region.

Independent of whether the Society would want its future to be as a museum or a library, the impact of such a decision should be considered with respect to the many and varied users of the Society's materials. One could ask, for example, if scholars would be better served by transferring the library collections to the New York Public Library. Similarly, one could look into the benefits of joining the Society's collections with the Museum of the City of New York or the Metro­politan Museum. Working through these questions might help the Society deter­mine its comparative strengths and where it ought to focus its resources.

Option 5: transfer and merge

As mentioned, there are many possibilities that could combine various elements from these alternatives. One such combination would be the simultaneous pursuit of both a transfer of part of the collections and a merger with another institution. Given the discussions that have taken place in the past, it is possible to imagine a transfer of the library collections to the New York Public Library or to NYU and a merger with the Museum of the City of New York. The positive aspects of a merger with the MCNY, discussed earlier in this chapter, would continue to apply. In addition, the problem of space might be resolved by moving the library collections to another location, freeing up substantial space for the MCNY collections at the Society's facility on Central Park West. Still, such a move would surely be painful for the constituents of the MCNY, and there would remain the problem of com­bining and allocating power on a newly constituted board of trustees. The support of the public sector would again be crucial to executing such a plan.

Option 6: continue to operate independently, but outside new york city

Many people strongly hold to the belief that the truly unique aspect of the Society’s collections is its breadth. The Society’s collections offer a visitor or researcher the chance to investigate and experience a wide variety of objects from a particular time. For example, while researching the Civil War, a person could read not only books on the War but also the handwritten letters of soldiers, generals, prisoners, and loved ones. One could view prints, photographs, and works of art relating to the topic. One could see the uniforms, weapons, and other materials used in fighting the battles. The collections can provide a comprehensive picture of a moment in time.

One way to retain this breadth would be to keep the collections together but move them out of New York City. The advantages of such a choice are primarily economic. For one thing, the Society could conceivably sell its building and real estate on Central Park West and use the proceeds to begin to bolster its endowment. Second, the Society could substantially reduce its fixed costs of operations, which are exorbitant in its present location. Third, the Society might stand to benefit from leaving the city, where competition for both visitors and donors is intense.

The biggest disadvantage of such an option is removing the collections from the city. For example, keeping the library collections together and in New York is considered especially important because other research libraries in the region have made acquisitions decisions based on the assumption that the Society’s library collections would be available nearby. Local library professional argue that moving the library would leave a hole in the research resources of the city that could not be repaired.


As one steps back to think in broader terms about the future, one must ask what it is that is truly important about The New-York Historical Society. Put another way, what is it that everyone is so eager to save and to protect? Is it the institu­tion or its collections? The answer has profound implications.

If it is the collections of the Society that are preeminent, then the goal should not be to develop a plan that has the best chance of saving the Society in its present form but rather to find the plan that makes the most efficient use of the economic resources available to support cultural institutions. Pursuing such a goal forces one to address difficult, even sacrosanct issues. For example, everyone would like to see the Society's museum, library, and decorative arts collections remain together, but when is the overall cost too high? The Society has already sold parts of its collections to allow it to pursue this objective. How important, really, is it for the collections to be held in a single physical location? With the rapid advance of multimedia computer and communications technologies, how important will it be ten years from now? These are difficult questions, but they are questions the Society's board must begin to answer.

If the board decides to continue to operate the Society in its present form, the challenge is daunting. Perhaps the Society's biggest problem is that it has so many justifiable reasons for spending money. Who can argue if the Society wants to mount a major initiative to catalog every book, print, and manuscript in the library? Or if it plans to add conservation staff to arrest the deterioration of its museum collections? Or if it chooses to mount an aggressive exhibit, lecture series, and marketing campaign to establish itself as a vital and engaged mem­ber of the community? Evaluated individually and independently, these initiatives are all justifiable. But the Society has no money. More than anything else, it has been the pursuit of these honorable objectives that has resulted in the extraordi­nary deficits at the Society over the past seventeen years.

The solution to the Society's problems does not lie in correcting past wrongs or in finally doing the right thing. In fact, there really is no single answer or solu­tion. More than anything else, the Society must face reality. It must find a per­manent and sustainable balance among the many worthwhile uses of its limited resources. For the Society to have a chance to find that balance, expectations must be lowered. Problems nearly two centuries in the making are not going to be solved overnight. Observers, both supporters and critics alike, must take the long view and recognize that rehabilitation of the Society will be a very long process, achieved in small steps.

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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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