Yale archivist to serve as city historian

Judith Schiff, Yale’s chief research archivist, will serve as city historian.
Judith Schiff, Yale’s chief research archivist, will serve as city historian. Photo by Sharon Yin.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. appointed Yale’s Judith Schiff as the Elm City’s official historian on Monday.

Schiff, who is currently the chief research archivist at the Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department, will serve in the position until Dec. 31, 2013, according to a City Hall press release. At the Library, where she has worked for 52 years, Schiff specializes in Yale, New Haven and American history. Since the role of city historian is an unpaid post and has no “officially assigned” duties, according to City Hall spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton, Schiff will continue to work at Yale while serving the city.

“Judith Schiff is knowledgeable in all matters regarding New Haven history, and has consistently demonstrated a passion for New Haven’s past as well as a commitment to the betterment of its future,” DeStefano said in the press release.

After Richard Hegel, New Haven’s first city historian, died in February, a several people recommended Schiff for the position, Benton said.

“The selection of Judith Schiff came about very naturally,” Benton said, adding that they took into account Schiff’s involvement in numerous historical organizations like the New Haven Museum, where she serves on the governing board.

Though the city historian does not have specific responsibilities, Schiff will serve as a point person on New Haven history, Benton said.

In the press release, Schiff said she enjoys “researching and advising researchers on history projects that enrich New Haven culturally and economically.”

University President Richard Levin added that Schiff is “extraordinarily knowledgeable about the University” and a “tremendous asset to Yale.”

At the Yale University Library, Schiff’s role will remain unchanged, University Librarian Susan Gibbons said.

“It is a fantastic acknowledgment of Judy’s knowledge of the city and her commitment to history and our community,” Gibbons said.

William Massa, head of collection development at the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department, said in a November interview that Schiff’s ability to speak about Yale “at the pan-institutional level regarding the last 310 years” is unmatched.

In addition to her co-workers, professors and Yale administrators alike often look to Schiff for help about Yale’s history. Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, Yale’s Larned professor emeritus of history said in November that he consults Schiff when he has questions about Yale’s history. Schiff also previously worked with the Yale administration to celebrate anniversaries like Elihu Yale’s 250th birthday and Noah Webster’s 250th birthday.

She played a “big role” in the University’s tercentennial, preparing background information and various publications, Levin said, adding that this is only a small fraction of the Schiff’s work as University archivist.

Schiff will expand on these experiences in helping to plan the 375th anniversary of New Haven’s founding in 2013, the press release said. Though City Hall has not yet decided how it will commemorate the anniversary, Benton said, it would be “very natural” for Schiff to be “very involved.”

Levin said he thinks Schiff will bring the “same thoroughness and diligence and passionate interest in history that animated her years as universary archivist” to her new appointment.

Schiff also serves on the governing boards for the Grove Street Cemetery and the Lindbergh Foundation and was previously the president of the New Haven League of Women Voters and the Yale University Women’s Organization. She currently writes the Yale Alumni Magazine’s “Old Yale” column about the University’s history.

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