Judith Ann Schiff, Yale’s long-serving chief research archivist
Judith Ann Schiff, a longtime archivist at the Yale University Library who loved helping others gain a deeper understanding of Yale’s and New Haven’s histories, died on July 11. She was 84.
Over the course of a Yale career spanning more than 60 years, Schiff — the library’s chief research archivist and the university’s longest-serving staff member in recent memory — guided countless students and scholars through the library’s archival collections. She built and managed many of those collections, making them more accessible to researchers. And she delighted in sharing fun, fascinating, and often forgotten stories from the university’s history through her beloved “Old Yale” column in the Yale Alumni Magazine. Generous by nature, she enjoyed sharing her knowledge of Yale’s history with alumni, frequently giving talks during reunions and other special events.
Since 2012, Schiff served as New Haven’s city historian — a volunteer position through which she tirelessly documented her hometown’s complex history and inspired others to learn more about the Elm City.
“A dedicated servant of this university, Judy Schiff was a remarkable archivist, historian, teacher, and mentor. Her work was her passion — bringing to life the histories of Yale and New Haven,” said Yale President Peter Salovey. “She was a generous friend to Marta and me and often shared archival findings with us. As we mourn her passing, we remember Judy’s deep love for this university and this city, past and present.”
Schiff — “Judy” to her friends and colleagues — was born in New York City and moved with her family to New Haven when she was four years old. The family resided in the city’s Westville neighborhood near the Yale Bowl. She graduated from Hillhouse High School, which at the time was located at the present site of Morse and Stiles colleges.
“Judy Schiff loved her hometown of New Haven and Yale University,” said Henry “Sam” Chauncey Jr., a longtime administrator at Yale who served as secretary of the university from 1971 to 1981. “She knew more about each than anyone I have ever met. She also stood as a beacon for women both in New Haven and at Yale for she believed in herself and her ability even in the most masculine environment.”
Schiff, whose undergraduate years preceded the co-education of Yale College, earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Barnard College and returned to New Haven in June 1959 hoping to earn money for graduate school. She initially took a job as an editorial assistant at Yale’s Cowles Foundation for Economic Research. About six months later, she accepted a position with the library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department helping to catalog the papers of New Haven families.
One of her early tasks was to help catalog the papers of 19th-century Yale linguist William Dwight Whitney. Poring over primary sources — diaries, letters, scrapbooks, etc. — enchanted her and she became hooked on archival work.
“I was fascinated to read the contents of thousands of letters from scholars and scientists all over the world, and to know that I was the first person to open them since the 19th century,” Schiff recalled in a recent staff profile marking her 60th anniversary at Yale.
Her first major project involved working on the papers of Mabel Loomis Todd, the editor of Emily Dickinson’s poems, which Schiff had played a pivotal role in the library acquiring. In 1980, Schiff curated an exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of Dickinson’s birth that featured documents and artifacts drawn from the collection.
Perhaps her largest and most complex archival project involved the archives of the famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The archive documents Charles Lindbergh’s career as a pioneering pilot, developer of commercial aviation and rocketry, military officer, Pulitzer-winning author, and public figure. It includes correspondence, diaries, housekeeping records, photographs, and artifacts, including the necktie he wore on his historic 1927 transatlantic flight and a piece of fabric from his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis.
Schiff worked closely with Lindbergh himself for more than a decade in assembling the archive, until his death in 1974, and forged a close professional relationship with the Lindbergh family. She co-edited Lindbergh’s book “Autobiography of Values” and co-authored a short biography, “Charles Lindbergh: An American Life.” In 2002, she curated an exhibit of Lindbergh artifacts to commemorate the aviator’s 100th birthday and the 75th anniversary of his groundbreaking flight. She also served on the governing board of the Lindbergh Foundation.
While working for the library, Schiff earned a master’s degree in history from Columbia University and a degree in library science from Southern Connecticut State College. She took the role of chief research archivist in 1971.
“Judy Schiff was a brilliant and generous colleague, whose deep knowledge of archival research and the Yale archives provided a foundation for every major milestone celebration of Yale and New Haven history in the past six decades,” said Barbara Rockenbach, the Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian. “Her assistance to researchers from around the world was foundational for countless scholarly books and articles. Her intellectual curiosity, persistence, and attention to detail were unmatched, and her work was enriched over time by deep, personal relationships with many individuals and families who chose to entrust their archives to Yale University Library.
“For the library, the university, and the city, Judy is quite simply irreplaceable. My colleagues and I are blessed beyond measure to have known Judy as a colleague, mentor, and friend,” Rockenbach added.
In addition to her archival work at the library, Schiff was an accomplished historian, writer, and teacher who uncovered, documented, and shared the histories of Yale, New Haven, and the United States. Her work often brought attention to marginalized people, including women and people of color.
Recently, she was a member of the Yale and Slavery Working Group that President Salovey convened in October 2020 to investigate Yale’s historic roles in and associations with slavery, the slave trade, and abolition. The group presented its findings during a three-day academic conference on campus last fall.
“Judy was a Yale treasure for her boundless knowledge of university and New Haven history, for endless writings about this institution’s past, and for her generosity and kindness to generations of students and faculty,” said David Blight, Sterling Professor of History, who directed the project. “On the Yale and Slavery project Judy was our source and our monitor. She is missed beyond measure.”
Schiff experienced and documented many historic moments on campus over the years, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 visit to campus to receive an honorary degree, the establishment of coeducation at Yale College in 1969, and the 1970 May Day protests on the New Haven Green.
She contributed to Yale’s Tercentennial celebration and the “50WomenAtYale150” commemoration of the 50th anniversary of coeducation in Yale College and the 150th anniversary of women students at the university. In November 2011, Yale presented Schiff the inaugural Edward Bouchet Legacy Award for her efforts to publicize the story of Bouchet, an early African-American Yale graduate and the first to earn a Ph.D. in the United States.
In 1987, Schiff began penning the popular “Old Yale” column, which shared stories about the people, places, and events that distinguish Yale. Her most recent column — published this month to coincide with the Wimbledon tennis championships — recounted a lawn tennis craze that famed sportsman Walter Camp initiated on campus in the 1880s. Other recent columns highlighted the work to start women’s athletics at Yale after the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; a profile of Yale alumnus and abolitionist Joshua Leavitt, who organized support for the Amistad captives; and a recounting of a visit to campus by French general Ferdinand Foch after the allied victory in World War I.
“Judy was the most unassuming expert I’ve ever known,” said Kathrin Lassila, editor in chief of the Yale Alumni Magazine. “She gladly wrote essays about Yale history for us — and she could do it almost at the drop of a hat. But she didn’t have the slightest sign of egotism. She loved her work, she loved her friends, and she was utterly devoted to Yale.”
Schiff founded or co-founded several local and professional historical organizations, including New England Archivists, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven, and the Ethnic Heritage Center of New Haven. She served on the governing boards of the New Haven Museum and the Grove Street Cemetery. She published widely on New Haven history, including the Michelin Travel Publications’ “Green Guide to Yale and New Haven,” and the chapter on the “Social History of New Haven” in “New Haven: An Illustrated History,” edited by Richard Hegel.
Schiff was dedicated to her role as city historian and enjoyed uncovering forgotten facts or stories about the city and sharing them with the public. For example, she determined that the Sovereign Bank, at the corner of Church and Chapel streets, is the site of the former Merchants’ Building, which housed the law office of Roger Sherman Baldwin, who organized the defense of the 43 Africans jailed in the city in 1839 after they had taken control of the slave ship “Le Amistad” that had transported them across the Atlantic. The bank’s lobby now bears a commemorative plaque. She also confirmed that six of the Amistad captives are buried in Grove Street Cemetery and assisted efforts to erect a marble marker in their memory in the cemetery.
In 2019, Schiff received the Linda K. Lorimer Award for Distinguished Service to Yale in recognition of how “commitment to discovering and sharing Yale’s history has engendered a deeper sense of community, advanced diversity, and disseminated knowledge of the university.” In 2020, she was awarded the Yale Medal, the Yale Alumni Association’s highest honor for outstanding individual service to the university.
Schiff explained her commitment to Yale and New Haven in a video interview that was presented at the medal ceremony: “I came to know first-hand about the Yale ‘spirit’ which we all talk about and try to define,” she said at the time. “I think it does exist, when people work together for a common cause, to make the town and university better, to make people better. If your work is not something you really enjoy, you have to keep looking — whether you’re an artist or a composer, or someone who just likes to read old papers, you have to find the thing you are passionate about. And I think it’s the sharing with other people which has meant so much to me.”
Funeral services will be held at Grove Street Cemetery at 11 a.m. Friday, July 15 and are under the care of the Robert E. Shure and Son Funeral Home, 543 George St., New Haven, CT.