Friday, September 26, 2008

Waning Influence

As I may have mentioned before, Katie has spent a lot of time processing the paper trail of the NYCC's Committee on Arbitration. I think she knows more about commercial arbitration at this point than she ever imagined possible, or ever really wanted for that matter. In anticipation of writing the finding aid, Katie has been keeping carefully detailed notes on the history and evolution of the Committee, like any good archivist would. The Committee on Arbitration was the first established committee of the NYCC, created at the Chamber's second meeting in 1768. It was the leading advocate of New York and US arbitration laws. Over the years the Committee's influence and significance grew as it continually played a key part in settling commercial disputes between businesses, both domestically and abroad. The Committee was dissolved in 1900 upon the death of Judge Enoch Fancher, who had become largely responsible for overseeing the arbitration cases. The arbitration cause was taken up again in 1911 when NYCC member Charles Bernheimer began to agitate for the re-establishment of the Committee. Bernheimer became Chairman of the Committee, and took a very active role in promoting arbitration courts nationally and internationally. If you take a look at correspondence sent and received during Bernheimer's tenure, you will find appeals from all over the world asking for advice on how to set up a local arbitration court and requesting a copy of the Handbook and Guide to Commercial Arbitration issued by the New York Chamber of Commerce (a copy can be found in the NYCC collection).

Ok, so Katie can speak much more eloquently about all of this than I can, due to her total submersion in these records for a number of weeks--its all arbitration, all of the time! I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I will never know as much about it as her, and I've appointed her arbitration expert for the rest of this project. But I found myself thinking about the Arbitration Committee last week when I came across an article in The New York Times, "U.S. Court is Now Guiding Fewer Nations." (Yes, I read the Times a lot.) If you don't have time to read it, its abstract states, "A diminishing number of foreign courts seem to pay attention to the writings of the Supreme Court justices." The article then goes on to describe how the influence of the US court on the rest of the world's courts is waning. Several reasons are cited as possible factors in this trend, including the rise of more sophisticated courts outside of the US, the growing conservatism of the Supreme Court, and the declining popularity of the US abroad. The author then goes on to say, "Sending American ideas about the rule of law abroad has long been a source of pride." That's one of the lines that made me think of the Chamber. It is quite clear from the Chamber's correspondence and publications that their educational outreach efforts, both domestically and abroad, were a huge source of pride--not just in arbitration matters, but also in aiding other cities, towns, or states in establishing their own Chambers of Commerce. They even got an award for it:

And therein lies the source of diminishing influence--their outreach efforts were so effective that eventually their aid was no longer necessary, which is part of what has happened to the US Court. As the Times article says of the US Court, "But as constitutional courts around the world developed their own bodies of precedent and started an international judicial conversation, American influence has dropped."

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting parallel, and a good example of the many lines of research opportunities that this collection offers.

By the way, Katie, who has quickly established herself as the world's greatest assistant, has been hard at work on creating a Wikipedia page for the NYCC. Please take a look when you get a chance; it relates a lot of historical details in a clear, concise way and hopefully will give anyone who's interested a good sense of the evolution of the NYCC.

One last thing: The debate tonight is on! Watch it, talk about it, and make sure you are registered to vote. There is still time!


Friday, September 19, 2008

Governors Island: Then and Now

A couple of weekends ago, I finally got it together and managed to take a trip over to Governors Island. I've wanted to do this since I first moved to NYC, but as they say, "the best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry." If you don't live in New York, or even if you do, you may not be familiar with Governors Island, although its profile has been rising in recent years as it gains popularity. The New York Times just published an article about it, extolling it as, "a place rich with history and surprises." For most of the last two centuries it was home to a military base and owned by the federal government. It was sold to New York for $1 in 2003, and is now a haven for bike riders, picnickers, history buffs, and anyone who just needs to get away from the noise of the city. It's quite small--you can bike around it in about 15 minutes or so, and then you are free to spend the rest of your trip eating your packed lunch, wandering around the eerily uninhabited island, peeking into windows, and jiggling the handles of locked doors. If you haven't been, I would imagine that autumn will be an ideal time to be there, what with all the trees, falling leaves, and sprawling lawns. As the Times article notes, it really does look and feel like you are on the grounds of a New England college campus. I think this photograph by Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times proves that point:

Also, it’s a great place to get a close up view of one of Olafur Eliasson's "New York City Waterfalls" (which, frankly, I think are overrated, but to each her own I guess).

With memories of Governors Island fresh in my mind, I was pleasantly surprised to come across this 1912 missive from the NYCC to US Secretary of War:

I particularly like this line:

"The argument is that there is more wealth concentrated upon the lower end of Manhattan Island than probably anywhere else in the world, and the presence of the regular army at Governor's Island is an enormous protection of these vast property interests against possible riot, insurrection and other troubles."

That sounds like it could be hyperbole, and considering recent news, the current state of the economic power of the US, the falling value of the dollar, etc., I'm not so sure that argument would fly today in terms of an international scope, although certainly there is still an enormous amount of wealth concentrated in downtown Manhattan. On the other hand, in light of the attack on the World Trade Center and other terrorist activities in New York and around the rest of the world, it seems likely that there are people in this day and age who might get behind the NYCC's argument to have the military close by. At any rate, reading that letter reminded me of something I came across a while back. Consider these statistics on banking and money distribution, taken from a page in the NYCC Annual Report for 1909-1910, which provides good evidence for the reasoning behind the above quote:

The disparity between New York City and the rest of the country is quite striking, no? I'm curious about what those statistics would be nowadays, but that's a question I'll save for my reference librarian colleagues.

Anyway . . . that was then, and this is now, and now Governors Island is just a great place to relax on a weekend afternoon. It won't cost you anything to get there--the ferry to the island is free--so the only money you'd spend would be on your picnic lunch. So plan your visit now, New Yorkers, because soon it will be winter and too cold to enjoy it.

Who knows, this could be you:


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remembrance of Things Past

As far as research value goes, I would say that the NYCC meeting minutes are pretty much the star of the show. There are two main groups of meeting minutes for the Chamber--the committees meeting minutes and the regular meeting minutes.

First, there are the committees meeting minute books. We've come across 14 volumes of committee meeting minute bound volumes so far, a complete set from 1864 to 1973. Though the majority of the volumes are dedicated to the meetings of the Executive Committee, there are some other standing committees minutes interspersed in several of the volumes. Even without the minutes of the standing committees, the minutes of the Executive Committee should prove to be a research gem. The Executive Committee was made up of an elected Chairman and the Chairmen of each standing committee; the Chamber President, the Executive Secretary, the Senior Vice President, the Treasurer, the Assistant Treasurer, and 9 members-at-large. These gentlemen were entrusted with managing the affairs of the NYCC; they were the movers and shakers of the organization. A researcher may wish to consult them in hope of getting a clearer understanding of the Chamber's overarching vision and goals. Most of the meeting minutes contain reports from each of the chairmen of the standing committees--of which there were quite a few over the years--which were formed in order to address specific issues of particular concern to the chamber.

The second main group of minute books record the minutes of the "regular" meetings (yes, that's how they are referred to by the Chamber). Supposedly, this collection holds a complete run of the regular meeting minutes from the very first meeting in 1768 up until 1979 when the Chamber merged with the Partnership for New York City. Since we still have about 40 boxes to comb through, I have yet to determine if that is actually true, but so far we have found a complete set from 1768 to 1933. These are recorded in 18 leather bound volumes, all of which are . . . large . . . heavy . . . dusty . . . and occasionally experiencing cases of proverbial red rot. I suspect minutes from the remaining years may be tucked away in folders or binders, rather than bound volumes, but as I said, that remains to be seen.

At this point, you may be wondering what a bound volume of meeting minutes from 1768 looks like, so here's a visual for you:

Yeah, I know, it seems like it has been through a lot. The inside is beautiful though:

You have here every detail of every monthly meeting AND annual meeting AND special meeting held by the Chamber of Commerce. The Who, What, When, and Where of it all, painstakingly handwritten in a lovely ink scrawl. Year to year, these books manage to maintain their great size, weight, and dusty accumulation, but the insides reveal a gradual change in style. Compare the above 1768 volume to this one which begins in 1868, one hundred years later:

Now, take a look at this one from 1968, another hundred years later:

Kind of boring in comparison, right? I think this is an interesting point to bring up because now that we are in the age of the personal computer (and beyond actually--these days, its more like the age of the personal hand-held device), typewriters have become romanticized icons of the past, one of those things people think of as they long for the way the world used to be--a time of simpler things, a slower pace, more focus, less noise (except for the sound of those keys clacking, I guess). But I am willing to bet that in 1968 someone was sitting around thinking the same thing about pen and ink. And I have to say, I agree with you, fictionalized person from 1968. I, too, long for those simple times of quill and blotter, those days of high marks for good penmanship, those stylized flourishes on the page that evince extra effort and dedication and care and pride. I am by no means a Luddite . . . I enjoy my laptop and streaming video and mp3 player as much as any NYC subway rider, but I do tend towards a romantic vision of the past. I do own a vintage typewriter, a 30 pound behemoth which I lugged from Texas to New York because it is the best gift I've ever been given and I like the look of it and the idea of it and its significance of things old and forgotten and world weary. Signifying slowness. Deliberateness. Confidence. (Those keys require more than a gentle tap.)

Anyway, this is turning into a rambling tangent, but I bring it up because I think its something interesting to consider as we in the present continually create our own body of documentation. I wonder if in the future the art of writing will only be considered in terms of its intellectual content, without noting the visual and physical aspect of writing, simply because that won't exist any more--corrections, additions, notes in the margins, explanatory drawings, impromptu diagrams, color coding, hand drawn decorative borders, tangible enclosures--when you are typing an email, embellishments come in the form of digital attachments, hyperlinks, and maybe an emoticon or two, but that's about it. If you were to donate your papers to an archival institution, what would they look like? And does that even matter?