Meeting Yale’s encyclopedia

Judith Schiff, the University's chief research archivist for 40 years, has developed a reputation as the foremost authority on Yale's traditions and history.
Judith Schiff, the University's chief research archivist for 40 years, has developed a reputation as the foremost authority on Yale's traditions and history. Photo by Vivienne Jiao Zhang.

When she was young, Judith Schiff could not decide whether to be a reporter, a museum curator or a teacher. Now, she is all three.

In her current job as chief research archivist at Yale University Library, a post she has held for the last 40 years, Schiff said she found aspects of all three professions in her role as an expert and spokesperson on Yale’s history.

Born and raised in New Haven, she attended Hillhouse High School — which was located where Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges now stand — but could not have applied to Yale because the College did not yet accept women.

Still, she recalls attending football games at the Yale Bowl as a young girl. And, after graduating from Barnard College, she returned to New Haven where she soon began helping catalogue the history of New Haven families for Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library.

“It gave me a taste of what specialized library work was like,” Schiff said.

Over the years, in addition to her other tasks, Schiff has developed a reputation as a spokesperson for Yale’s history, traditions and legacy. Surrounded by relics of Yale’s past such as Class Day pipes and with a book on the Game’s history sitting on her desk, Schiff has amassed a wealth of knowledge of her own about the school and her hometown.

“I wish Yale had a museum,” Schiff said. “I’ve always proposed [a museum] when I have the opportunity, but there doesn’t seem to be the space.”

Until then, Yale has Schiff.

UNDERSTANDING YALE’S HISTORY

If Yale does not document its own history, no one else will, University Librarian Susan Gibbons said.

At the beginning of her career as chief research archivist, Schiff said she played a greater role in acquiring archive materials because fewer people worked in the department during those early years.

For archives on the Harvard-Yale Game, the library relies on the Athletics Department to donate a significant part of the collection. The Athletics Department provides sports material to the library, Schiff said, including hundreds of films, pictures and information files.

On a shelf in the Manuscripts and Archives reading room, Yale football memorabilia such as programs and tickets from decades past can be accessed by students. The library also houses football-themed Yale novels such as the Frank Merriwell series, which describes a student who excelled at many sports at Yale while also solving mysteries, and “Stover at Yale”, a famed story of life at the University.

Schiff said her interest in Yale’s history began in part as a consequence of much of her life being spent in New Haven, adding that mentors such as George Pierson — who served as University historian — also impacted her interest.

An image from every Harvard-Yale Game held can also probably be found in the library’s database, Schiff said.

Schiff received her undergraduate degree in history from Barnard and later attended graduate school at Columbia. She returned to Yale soon after, where she catalogued papers of a diplomat serving in China, and attended Southern Connecticut State University part-time for a second master’s degree — this time in library science.

Over the years, as the department expanded, she began to focus more on Yale’s history and understanding of its own past.

“She has such deep knowledge about Yale and New Haven history,” said Nancy Lyon, also an archivist in the Yale University Library.

Knowledge of the past is the foundation for handling the present in an intelligent way, professor Gaddis Smith, who often fields questions about Yale’s history as University historian, said.

He added that a major university like Yale is an important element of history for higher education.

“If Yale didn’t keep an archive, we would be running around in circles,” he said, adding that he looks to Schiff to answer questions that he cannot about Yale’s history.

SHARING 50 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE

Schiff marked her 50th year at the University in March 2010, but there are still many things that she said she would like to accomplish.

“There’s more and more interest and demand in knowing about Yale’s history and celebrating Yale’s history,” Schiff said.

Schiff’s lengthy tenure at Yale enhances her ability to speak and write about the institutional history, Massa said. In 1988, Schiff began writing a freelance column called “Old Yale” for the Yale Alumni Magazine. She said that even after 20 years she has never “come close” to running out of subjects to write about.

Still, Schiff said her transition toward focusing more on researching Yale’s history was “a gradual process.” In the late 1990s, the addition of staff members in Manuscripts and Archives allowed her to concentrate more on this interest in Yale’s history.

Schiff’s role as a spokesperson for Yale’s history allows her to work with the Yale administration to develop interesting ways to celebrate anniversaries. In 1999, she suggested celebrating the 350th birthday of Elihu Yale, the University’s namesake, with a party on Beinecke Plaza. Three years ago, she helped commemorate the 250th birthday of Noah Webster.

Schiff also helps students with research projects and works with other librarians on increasing access to the library’s materials, but she said much of the work she does at Yale is what she would do if she retired.

“When people are writers or historians they don’t stop when they retire,” Schiff said.

In addition to giving talks at reunions and Yale Clubs across the country, Director of the Department of Manuscripts and Archives Christine Weideman said that Schiff’s presentations at alumni events or during Family Weekend are always full.

“Judy is a very good spokesperson for Yale’s past; she probably knows the most Yale history of anyone on campus, and she’s very good at sharing it,” Weideman said.

Bill Massa, head of collection development at Manuscripts and Archives and a colleague of Schiff’s for nearly 24 years, added that while some people may have knowledge about a specific event in Yale’s history, no one except Schiff can “speak at the pan-institutional level regarding the last 310 years.”

Schiff was recently awarded the Edward Bouchet Legacy Award in recognition of her contribution toward the research of Edward Alexander Bouchet 1874 GRD 1876, who was the first African-American graduate of Yale College and the first African-American to earn a doctoral degree from an American university.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Congratulations to Ms. Schiff on this well deserved tribute. She has been answering my own research questions for over 25 years. Many thanks, JAS.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80

    M.A., M.Ed.