Judith Schiff, Who Roamed Yale’s Vast Archive, Dies at 84

Judith A. Schiff, who in her many decades as chief research archivist at the Yale University Library worked with Charles Lindbergh on his archive, explored the papers of Emily Dickinson’s editor and unearthed all sorts of tidbits about the university and the surrounding city of New Haven, Conn., died on July 11 in Hamden, Conn. She was 84.

A friend, Sara Fraim, said the cause was complications of pulmonary fibrosis.

Ms. Schiff worked at Yale for more than 60 years and was, the university said in its announcement of her death, its “longest-serving staff member in recent memory.”

In addition to her work at Yale, she had been historian for the city of New Haven since 2012 and had worked with other historical organizations.

“Judy was a modest, retiring, soft-spoken dynamo,” Kathrin Day Lassila, editor of Yale Alumni Magazine, where Ms. Schiff had a longstanding column, said by email. “She could answer almost any question about Yale or New Haven history, and if there was a question she couldn’t answer, she’d find it out.”

“She wrote some terrific pieces for the Yale Alumni Magazine,” Ms. Lassila added, “often describing people who broke barriers: a woman who got into Yale’s all-male law school in 1885 by using her initials instead of her first name; the first Black man known to attend classes at Yale, though he was refused matriculation or a degree. After all, Judy herself had started working here over 60 years ago — before Yale College accepted women students, before a woman could get tenure in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and when the overwhelming majority of students and faculty were white.”

Over the years Ms. Schiff curated exhibitions and worked directly with those seeking to transfer archives to the university. An example from early in her career was Millicent Todd Bingham, the daughter of Mable Loomis Todd, who edited several volumes of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Ms. Schiff played a central role in acquiring Ms. Todd’s papers for the Yale archive.

She also worked with Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a writer and, like her husband, an aviator. Charles Lindbergh had donated his papers to Yale, and Ms. Schiff came to know him in the mid-1960s because he would come in frequently to work on those papers.

“He seemed to enjoy working through the papers by himself,” The Associated Press quoted her as saying in 1977, three years after Lindbergh’s death. “We marveled at his ability to work, standing, for a full day with only a short break for lunch.”

Ms. Schiff worked with Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, on archival material they gave to Yale. Much of it was included in the 2006 exhibition “Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Author, Aviator and Environmentalist.” Credit…George Ruhe for The New York Times

After his death Ms. Schiff came to know Lindbergh even better, because she spent two years studying those papers herself, editing with William Jovanovich the posthumously published Lindbergh book “Autobiography of Values,” which appeared in 1978. She later wrote a biography of him and organized several Lindbergh exhibitions. Her last conversation with Lindbergh, The A.P. reported in 1987, occurred in July 1974, just before his death. He was more voluble than usual, she said.

“He really went on at some length about his papers and thanking me for various ways that I had helped him and so forth,” she said. “I didn’t realize until later that this was a farewell conversation.”

Ms. Schiff’s informal duties extended far beyond maintaining and organizing the library archives. She helped scholars with research, served as essay adviser to students, gave talks, taught classes, and ferreted out the history of Yale’s and New Haven’s historical figures and buildings — all while keeping up with technology as the tools of archiving advanced from microfiche to digital record-keeping.

Judith Ann Schiff was born on Nov. 26, 1937, in Manhattan to Harry and Lucille Schiff. When she was young the family moved to New Haven, where she grew up, graduating from Hillhouse High School. Yale loomed over her childhood.

“It was a place of some mystery,” she told Hartford Magazine in 2016. “You perceived huge bastions, these Gothic buildings that seemed to continue on and on. Until I began to work at Yale, I didn’t realize that they were separate buildings, that it wasn’t just one big castle.”

She couldn’t attend Yale, which was not fully coeducational at the time. But she returned to New Haven after earning a bachelor’s degree in history at Barnard College in New York in 1959 and took a job at the Cowles Foundation, a Yale research institute.

Soon she moved to the manuscripts and archives department at the university’s Sterling Memorial Library, where her early assignments included processing the papers of William Dwight Whitney, a noted 19th-century linguist, and his brother, the geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney.

“I was fascinated to read the contents of thousands of letters from scholars and scientists all over the world,” she said in a 2004 interview with Perspectives on History, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, “and to know that I was the first person to open them since the 19th century.”

She became the library’s chief research archivist in 1971.

She never stopped learning; she earned a master’s degree in history from Columbia University and a degree in library science from Southern Connecticut State College after starting work at Yale.

Ms. Schiff’s explorations, many captured in the “Old Yale” column she wrote for the alumni magazine, included the odd and even the somewhat ghoulish.

She examined the history and mythology of a venerated campus feature known as the Yale Fence. She looked into a rumor that paving stones in a particular quadrangle had once been use for ballast on a slave ship. (Unlikely, she determined.) And in 2012, when the gigantic hurricane known as Sandy uprooted a century-old tree on the New Haven Green, revealing human bones underneath, she was among the experts who fleshed out the story, so to speak: The green had been a burial ground from 1638 to 1797.

“Detailed descriptions of burials during the final years of the old burying ground were recorded by Yale president Ezra Stiles, Class of 1746, in his diary,” Ms. Schiff wrote in 2013. “Many of the dead had succumbed to the epidemics that swept through the colonies in the mid-1790s.”

In a statement, Yale’s current president, Peter Salovey, called Ms. Schiff “a remarkable archivist, historian, teacher and mentor.”

“Her work,” he said, “was her passion — bringing to life the histories of Yale and New Haven.”

Ms. Schiff, who lived in New Haven before moving to the Whitney Center in Hamden, leaves no immediate survivors.

The 2016 Hartford Magazine article, written by David Holahan, summed her up succinctly.

“Odds are,” it said, “if Schiff doesn’t know a thing about town or gown, or can’t find it using the vast resources at her command, the thing is unknowable.”

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