The Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Historical Society have announced a new plan to combine, merging their rich archival collections into what both institutions are billing as the premier collection related to the history of Brooklyn while also expanding their reach.
Under the plan, which was approved this week by the boards of both organizations, the library — the nation’s fifth largest — will become the parent institute of the historical society. The society will remain in its landmark 1881 building in Brooklyn Heights, which houses nearly 100,000 books, manuscripts, photographs, maps and other rare items dating to the 17th century.
The historical society’s building will also be home to the library’s Brooklyn Collection, a trove of more than 200,000 books, photographs, manuscripts, newspapers and maps.
The library’s president and chief executive, Linda E. Johnson, speaking in a joint telephone interview with the historical society’s president, Deborah Schwartz, said there would be “no change” to either institution’s mission.
Instead, the arrangement will bring greater financial stability and public outreach to the historical society, while also freeing up space in the library’s crowded Art Deco flagship, which is undergoing a $135 million renovation.
Ms. Schwartz added that the historical society, which was founded in 1863 as the Long Island Historical Society, would not be losing something, but rather gaining the ability to promote its collections to a much broader public via the library’s 59 branches across the borough.
“By bringing our collections together, we both gain enormous strengths,” she said. “We will become a formidable offering to the world about the history of Brooklyn.”
Some details of the plan, which both parties said required city participation but not city approval, have yet to be fully worked out, starting with the eternal New York City preoccupation: real estate costs.
The library’s flagship on Grand Army Plaza and most of its 59 branches are owned by the city, which allows their use in exchange for serving the borough. The city also pays the cost of utilities.
Ms. Johnson said the hope was that the city would also become owner of the historical society’s building, which underwent a major renovation in 2010, by retiring its $1.9 million mortgage debt.
There may also be bit of rebranding for the historical society, including what Ms. Johnson said would probably be a name change — maybe even dropping the fusty-sounding words “historical society,” as a number of other institutions have done.
“We are going to stick to it as closely as we can, to be respectful of the mission and identity of this institution,” she said of the change. “We’re not looking to be making sweeping changes. Our goal is to expand reach and open up access.”
Ms. Schwartz, who has led the historical society since 2006, said discussions over the merger began in November as an outgrowth of existing partnerships to promote the society’s programs, like its current project relating to the history of Muslims in Brooklyn.
The arrangement will give a financial cushion to the historical society, which has an operating budget of nearly $5 million and an endowment that Ms. Johnson characterized as $1 million “at a high.” The library, whose endowment is about $50 million, has an operating budget of around $140 million.
It will also, Ms. Johnson said, help solve some of the library’s issues with crowding, by opening up the prime space on the mezzanine of the flagship’s soaring lobby that is currently occupied by the Brooklyn Collection to wider use.
Last year, the Brooklyn Collection attracted about 800 researchers and 1,700 students, out of a total of more than one million visitors to the building. The historical society’s grand, wood-paneled second-floor library, which is an interior landmark, sees about 7,000 researcher visits a year, out of a total of about 50,000 visits to the building’s galleries and other public spaces.
“We’ve been on a space grab,” Ms. Johnson said of the library’s renovation, which is putting greater emphasis on digital technology and on converting more back-office space for public use. “We’re looking for every square inch and trying to make it available to the public.”
The plan may also bring a bit of spatial retrenchment for the historical society. Last year, in what was billed as its first-ever expansion, it opened a satellite in a restored pre-Civil War warehouse in the tourist-heavy Dumbo section of Brooklyn.
Ms. Johnson said the satellite’s current exhibition, a multimedia display exploring the Brooklyn waterfront, would remain there until March 2021. But what happens next in the space, whose lease runs through 2030, remains to be determined.
“We are really looking at everything,” she said.