retro posters and archived art

Archive of Achievements

With Nyitray at the helm, the university’s distinctive library collections
are preserved and accessible to all  


By Liza N. Burby

Kristen Nyitray

Kristen J. Nyitray reviews papers in the reading room of the Special Collections and University Archives.

In any given week, Kristen J. Nyitray ’96, director of Special Collections and University Archives, and university archivist for Stony Brook University Libraries, receives numerous queries from students, faculty, staff, people in the community, and scholars from out of state or overseas. They might have questions about the history of environmental science or the American Revolution on Long Island. Or they may be seeking maps showing railroad and steamboat routes from the 1800s, or links to access Stony Brook yearbooks online. When they’re not calling or emailing, visitors schedule appointments to come to the Melville Library to conduct research for an hour or they might need more than a week. The associate librarian said there’s no time of the year when someone doesn’t have a question for her about the university’s distinctive library collections.

And Nyitray is recognized for her ability to answer requests, even when they’re seemingly obscure, said Peter Manning, emeritus professor of English.

“I’ve sent her a request at 3:30 pm for information about a former member of the English department for a query from England about someone who died in 2001,” he said. “At 9:20 pm the same day I had a folder of material with everything from various long defunct university periodicals to a memorial bulletin from the New York Public Library. I had more information than I knew what to do with. This is typical of the way she is with every request.”

That’s because there is no one at the university who knows these collections like Nyitray. Since 1999, she has curated, preserved, digitized and added to the university’s extensive collection of rare books, maps, manuscripts, pamphlets, newspapers and ephemera that date back to the 12th century. As the university archivist, she has also been the steward of the history of Stony Brook University that dates from the 1950s. She’s an expert in her field and Long Island history, having authored articles and book chapters focusing on archives and libraries, and two books, including a history of Stony Brook. 

“I am continually impressed by the dedication and expertise of Kristen. She is the backbone of our institution’s historical legacy, preserving invaluable records that enrich our understanding of the past and inspire future generations,” said Karim Boughida, dean of Stony Brook University Libraries.

But if not for a graduate student position in the library, Nyitray may not have started on this path for the university.

An Unexpected Direction
Nyitray graduated from Stony Brook with a degree in sociology, but when it came to considering what was next, she followed her personal interest in libraries and archives.

“Two things happened. I knew that I needed to attend graduate school. But I also wanted to gain practical experience working in a library, so I came back to my alma mater and asked if there were any jobs in the library,” she said. 

There was only a student position available, so she enrolled in a course at SBU to be able to work as a graduate student employee. Just three months later she applied for and accepted a full-time position that had opened. “I went overnight from being a graduate student worker to becoming the supervisor of my supervisors. It was a pretty quick development, but I was very motivated,” Nyitray said. 

That job in the Melville Library was managing the million-volume main stacks collection headquartered on the third floor in circulation services, with a student staff of about 30. This was a period in the library when thousands of books were borrowed each semester and the most up-to-date research had to be photocopied from print journals. Soon after starting in her new role, Nyitray enrolled at Queens College and would graduate with a degree in library and information science.

In 1999, her love of history drew her to the Special Collections, started in 1969, which she had first visited as a graduate student. She said, “I grew up surrounded by rare books. My mother is a collector, so I had an affinity for it, but I never thought of becoming a professional librarian or archivist.” 

Nyitray approached a former dean of libraries to ask if it would be possible for her to help shape the department’s future. At the time, it consisted of two large collections: the Senator Jacob K. Javits Collection and the William Butler Yeats Collection, one of the most extensive collections of the famed Irish poet and author’s works housed outside of Ireland. 

But many of the other collections were unprocessed or under described, she said, so one of her first tasks was to take stock of the entirety of the collection.
“Unlike some universities where distinctive collections are distributed across the campus, at Stony Brook they are maintained under one division, comprising rare books, manuscripts, photographs and anything that has potentially evidential or historic documentation or is rare, valuable, fragile and an unusual format. It’s all managed under this department,” Nyitray said.

With the assistance of library cataloging staff, student assistants and interns, collections that were formerly unavailable became discoverable to researchers through the library’s online catalog. In the next year, she pursued the faculty division lead position and, with support of her librarian peers, smoothly transitioned into the leadership role. 

Image Slide 3

“Down the Rabbit Hole,” illustration from the limited edition of Salvatore Dali’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1969.

Image Slide 3

The collection includes tintype portraits of African Americans, a popular form of photography from the mid 1850s up to the 1930s.

Image Slide 3

The George Washington letter, signed to Benjamin Tallmadge, September 24, 1779, West Point, NY.

Image Slide 3

License plate, State University of New York, Long Island Center, c 1961.

Image Slide 3

Illustration of Nuremberg from the incunabulum Liber chronicarum ("Nuremberg Chronicle") in Latin, 1493. Authored by Hartmann Schedel, woodcuts by Wilhelm Pleydenwurff in the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, and printed by Anton Koberger.

Image Slide 3

Illustration, “Alice’s Evidence” from Lewis Carroll and Salvador Dalí, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (New York: Maecenas Press,1969).

previous arrow
next arrow


Robust Digital Archives
Meanwhile, the internet was just emerging at that time. While the collections were arranged and described, she said they needed to be widely promoted to the research community. So, another of the projects she embarked on was creating a comprehensive online presence for which she first had to learn HTML and how to become a webmaster.

“The goal was to design an online experience with the user in mind — intuitive to researchers, visually appealing and uncomplicated. I transformed our print collection guides into electronic format, creating web pages that were keyword searchable and therefore discoverable,” Nyitray said. As a result, all the archival guides to the collections are published on the Special Collections website with both an A-to-Z list for the names of collections and by subject matter. 

“A researcher can send me an email stating, ‘I would like to see box five, folder two of a particular collection.’ They can identify the materials of relevance, and we can immediately locate them in the library,” she said.

 Nyitray has also led digitization projects, converting analog primary sources into digital formats to improve accessibility, preservation and efficiency. Examples include digitizing papers from the Javits Collection; research files of Dr. Max Fink, emeritus professor of psychiatry and neurology; leaves of illuminated medieval manuscripts; and images of COVID-19 pandemic experiences at the university.

“Another important facet of my work is guiding students about how to conduct research with primary sources, and in ways to evaluate these sources in historical and cultural contexts,” she continued. “The website is the gateway to our collections, and understanding how to locate, access and utilize our source material in research is important.”

To this end, she collaborates with teaching faculty on library instruction sessions and developed a tutorial aimed at students with strategies for the effective and ethical use of primary sources in research and creative assignments.

Open to All
But even while digital collections are a way to find information quickly, Nyitray said she sees it as a tool that enhances the greater collection, rather than replacing it.

“Accessing archives in person offers tangible and perhaps even more profound experiences compared to viewing them online,” she said. “We have different formats and historical eras represented in our collections like oversized books, miniature books, diaries, artwork and maps.  Encounters with collections are sensory experiences that can evoke emotions, support serendipitous discoveries and reinforce the historical realities that they represent.” 

Nyitray considers accessibility to be crucial and wants the Stony Brook and surrounding communities to know that the collections are open to everybody. “We receive and are responsive to all types of research requests. We have visits from genealogists and elementary school students, in addition to the academic research community.”

And there’s a lot to show them. Nyitray obtained many of the items currently in the collection during the past 20 years. One of her most significant experiences in acquisitions was in 2006 when she went to Christie’s, the auction house in Manhattan, to bid on an American Revolutionary War-era, Culper Spy Ring letter authored by George Washington — her first time participating in an auction. 

The letter — along with a second acquired in 2009 — are relevant to regional and national historic narratives. They were composed in 1779 and 1780 and document espionage activities, with reference to Setauket. In addition to preserving the letters and helping a local museum by cracking the code in its spy letter — with painstaking work she was able to determine what it said — Nyitray also promotes these collections by giving lectures and participating in community events like the annual Culper Spy Day, ultimately drawing attention to the wider collection, which has also led to acquiring other material donations. It has also enhanced the archive’s reputation — and led to her appearances in film, podcast and television projects.   

The collection also includes an eclectic mix of Stony Brook historical items like a license plate used on the Oyster Bay campus; flyers and posters for musicians and entertainers, such as  Pink Floyd, that performed on campus; as well as yearbooks from 1961 to 2006. There’s ephemera like student flyers and newsletters, and copies of the student newspapers Black World, The Stony Brook Press and The Statesman — all of which she said demonstrate the breadth of the history of Stony Brook and the people who were instrumental in its growth.

Special Collections also encompasses archives of people who lived on Long Island such as naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy, Chinese American novelist and poet Diana Chang, barcode innovator George Goldberg, Italian American author Pietro di Donato, and poet Daniel Thomas Moran, former poet laureate of Suffolk County. The Rare Book Collection has more than 50,000 rare, scarce and unique titles dating from 1493 to the present. 

Accessibility for Students
Making sure that students have access to items like these, which Nyitray said are great teaching tools for courses across the curriculum, is another of her priorities. That’s one of the skills that faculty like Douglas S. Pfeiffer, an associate professor of English, said they appreciate about her. Because he’s interested in book and history of publication and archives as part of his own work, Pfeiffer has been bringing his classes to the Special Collections almost every semester since 2007. The medieval manuscripts always “blow the students’ minds because so many have never seen a medieval manuscript and they’ve certainly never touched one.”

That’s a perfect example of why he wants his students to work with and learn from Nyitray. “She’s not only introducing students to this particular facility and what it has,” Pfeiffer said. “One of the other things that Kristen does is to magnify for students — and anyone else who’s interested — the sense of how many people lie behind the thing that is in front of you. It’s not just about keeping a book safe because they’re rare, but how can we use these to rethink the way we read and write and interpret?”

As she curates the university’s collections, Nyitray mentioned that she stays updated on the latest developments in best professional practices.  She explains that the division strives to “preserve collections through the acquisition and organization of diverse research materials while calling attention to who is telling the story held in these sources, and emphasizing that there isn’t just one, but multiple versions of history,” she said. “Considering the intention of the creator and the purpose behind the creation of each source is essential.”           

Nyitray points to a map from 1858 that is one of the first of Suffolk County to denote who the property owners are; but it’s also telling who was able to own property at the time and who isn’t represented on the map. She said that one of the things she tries to impress on students when they visit is that collections are products of the broader socioeconomic contexts in which they are produced. “This perspective underscores the importance of critically engaging with archives.”

An Enduring Life Cycle
Pfeiffer said Nyitray’s approach has been inspirational in introducing students to library science as a profession. “One thing that Kristen does assiduously is keeping it new, not just showing students the same stuff over and over, which is easy to do, but constantly rethinking the collection, figuring out ways to bring it to the world to bring it to the students.” 

Nyitray said that in the life cycle of distinctive collections there’s consistently always more work to undertake. A current project is digitizing Dan’s Papers to make the issues accessible online and keyword searchable, and also to ensure its preservation. “We’re the only library that has this collection and it has distinct research value due to its extensive coverage of the East End of Long Island from the 1960s to today.”

After 25 years in the department, Nyitray modestly acknowledges that she’s most proud of the division’s esteemed reputation, having been recognized with awards and honors at both statewide and local levels, and its accomplishments that have helped to further the library’s and university’s missions. She also takes pride in having transformed spaces into welcoming environments conducive to classroom learning, research visits, exhibitions and library events.

“As a librarian and an archivist, I find great significance in the ever-evolving nature of the collections,” she said. “My role is not only about preserving the past; it’s about being adaptable, and refining methods and technologies in the present to ensure the accessibility and integrity of historical sources for future generations.”    

An Interactive Kiosk for Javits Lecture Hall

political posters from 1947-1981

Another project Kristen Nyitray is working on is creating an interactive digital exhibition for the Senator Jacob K. Javits Collection, a special collection with more than 2 million items. The exhibition will be accessible through a kiosk to be installed in the lobby of the recently renovated Javits Lecture Center on the Stony Brook campus. This initiative has been made possible with the support of the Javits family and the Marian B. and Jacob K. Javits Foundation.

Nyitray said that in addition to the kiosk, the exhibition will be accessible on computers and mobile devices. The content has been curated from Stony Brook’s own extensive collection, which includes materials produced throughout Javits’ life including childhood photographs, campaign materials, sound recordings and memorabilia from when he was attorney general of New York through his tenure as the U.S. senator from New York. 

A prominent and significant political figure, Senator Javits exemplified principled leadership and fought for social justice causes throughout his career, Nyitray said. “There are different ways to navigate throughout the site to learn about his progressive views and uniquely bipartisan approach to governance life. The collection covers a tremendous breadth of U.S. and international history for those studying Senator Javits, and the historical events, constituents and political figures that he engaged with over his lifetime. The exhibition serves as a means of honoring the senator’s legacy of service and encouraging use of the archive at Stony Brook and beyond the campus.”