Skip to main content

Cornell becomes new steward of historic Native American collection of Bronx Huntington Free Library, June 15

NEW YORK -- A New York state appeals court ruling this January paved the way for the Huntington Free Library to find a new steward for its Native American collection, one of the largest in the world. On Tuesday, June 15, at the private library's red brick home in the Bronx, papers will be signed to transfer the collection to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

The $2.5 million that the Huntington library will receive for the collection from Cornell will allow the library to remedy losses from a 15-year lawsuit over the ownership of the collection and return to its main mission of serving the Bronx community.

Media are invited to attend the transfer signing, view selected items from the collection on June 15 at 10:30 a.m. at the Huntington Free Library, 9 Westchester Square, in the Bronx, and attend the reception that follows. Sarah E. Thomas, Cornell University Librarian, and Edward Morgan, Huntington Free Library president, will be available for questions and comments.

The move, which will take place later this summer, will ensure that the collection stays in New York and remains accessible to students and researchers as well as the general public. The collection contains more than 40,000 volumes on the archaeology, ethnology and history of the native peoples of the Americas from the colonial period to the present. At Cornell University Library, the collection will be fully cataloged, with online records made available in national and international bibliographic databases. Over the coming years, Cornell also plans to digitize and make available on the Web some 1,300 rare books and monographs as well as approximately 100,000 pages of the Huntington's manuscript holdings.

"We are delighted that the Huntington has entrusted Cornell with this invaluable collection," said Sarah Thomas, Cornell University Librarian. "These spectacular historic materials will join other major documents in our collections, including the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's hand, collections on the antislavery movement, witchcraft, the French Revolution and the papers of the Marquis de Lafayette. The Huntington Free Library titles will complement and significantly augment our current Native American holdings." Thomas added, "The Cornell Library offers deep infrastructure and cutting-edge expertise in digital libraries that will ensure the preservation of print materials and the broad dissemination of important materials from the collection through Internet access."

"We at the Huntington Free Library are thrilled at the completion of this transfer of our Native American collection to Cornell University," said Edward A. Morgan, the library's president. "This transfer marks the beginning of a new and promising era for the library. With our endowment now restored, we can return to the original vision of Collis P. Huntington and build upon it using 21st-century ideas and technology as we involve the entire Bronx community in the library's existing work and our new community center venture."

The transfer will provide closure to a 15-year chapter of litigation in state and federal courts over ultimate ownership of the Native American collection. In 1930 the Huntington library received the collection from the Museum of the American Indian, then located in New York City, and agreed to care for it and make it available to the public, scholars and museum staff. In 1990 the American Indian museum was absorbed by the National Museum of the American Indian, which was part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian assumed that the library collection would accompany the artifacts collections it had acquired from the old Museum of the American Indian. A lawsuit followed, during which the Huntington Free Library fought to protect its ownership of the collection and other rights to it. Although the library ultimately won all key New York and federal court decisions, including appeals court rulings in 1994 and January 2004, the litigation nearly ruined it financially. The transfer of the collection to Cornell will remedy the losses and help the library return to its mission: serving the Bronx community, said Morgan.

Why did the Huntington choose Cornell as its new steward? "We believe the Huntington was looking for a new home that would embrace its Native American collection as a living, vibrant resource for learning and research," said Katherine Reagan, curator of rare books in Cornell Library's Rare and Manuscript Collections. "The strengths of the Cornell Library and its staff, the university's long history of outreach and collaboration with local Native American communities and the eagerness of the Cornell faculty to work with the collection, we think, made a difference."

Jane Mt. Pleasant, associate professor and director of Cornell's American Indian Program, said: "The collection provides enormously rich materials for teaching and research and will enable us to attract outstanding scholars from across the hemispheres."

Reagan said the collection, appraised at $8.3 million in 2001, is "full of treasures." Highlights include early printed books on travel and exploration with accounts of encounters with native peoples; rare dictionaries of Native American languages; original drawings of American Indians by the artist George Catlin; field notes by 19th century ethnographers and papers of archaeological expeditions; a German prince's account of travels in North America's interior -- considered one the finest early 19th century works on American Indian life; a 1765 original manuscript peace treaty between the Delaware Nation and Britain's superintendent of Indian affairs; and papers of the Women's National Indian Association.


Media Contact

Media Relations Office