A.J.F. Van Laer was a librarian and archivist in the New York State Library. He became quite famous for his work on translating and editing Dutch-language documents from New Netherland and seventeenth century Albany during the early 1900’s. He was primarily responsible for the care and maintenance of the historic Dutch language records dating back to the early years of New Netherland and New Amsterdam. But as an archivist he became involved in the translation and editing process.
Van Laer managed to begin the translation and editing project and was able to complete several volumes before Albany’s destructive Capitol fire in 1911 severely damaged or destroyed many of the historical records. He was panicked and worked directly with the post-fire cleanup crews to salvage what was left intact of the records. He then began the laborious and unsettling task of trying to salvage and reconstruct the remainder of the records. More than a decade passed before he was able to restart his translation and editing activities.
Van Laer retired from his library archivist and translator position in 1939. Between the year of the fire, 1911, and his retirement he was able to have accumulated a considerable collection of translated books and articles about the early Dutch in the Hudson River Valley from New York to Albany.
In 1974, 35 years following Van Laer’s retirement, the New Netherland Project was started to continue the work that had been assiduously done by Van Laer prior to his retirement.
It should be mentioned that Van Laer was not the first person to begin the translation project of historical Dutch American records. In 1869, the year Van Laer was born, a Union College professor, Jonathan Pearson, became an active translator of Dutch historical records from the Albany area.
Nearly 50 years later three volumes of the Pearson translations were revised and edited and then published by Van Laer. These documents are now available at the New York Public Library under: “Early Records of the City and County of Albany, and Colony of Rensselaerswyck”, Translated from the original Dutch with notes by Jonathan Pearson, Published by J. Munsell, State Street, Albany, New York. Volume I, 1656-1675 and Volume II, 1678-1704.
Van Lear’s translation work has been praised as a model translation of 17th Century Dutch, according to Charles T. Gehring, the successor to Van Laer in the historic translation project which is still ongoing at the time this was written.
In 2011, Van Laer’s descendants, in recognition of the centennial of the 1911 Capitol fire, donated a number of Van Laer’s historical records to the New York State Library. The donation was made by his grandson, Charles Van Laer, then 75, and his great granddaughter Allison Van Laer. It consisted of books, records, photographs and scrapbooks and other materials.
Van Laer earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the prestigious University of Delft prior to his departure to the United States in 1897. Upon his arrival he apparently decided to further his education and earned a degree in Library Science from the New York State Library School.
From 1899 to 1915 he headed the manuscript Division of the New York State Library. In 1915 he moved to the New York Division of Archives and History translating Dutch colonial documents. He remained there until his retirement in 1939. Along the way his title was changed from archivist to historian in recognition of the historic work he had been doing.
One of his peers credited him with the following: “The principle of provenance was first made known in the United States by Arnold J. Van Laer. He applied the principle of provenance to the state archives and changed the method of arranging archives chronologically.”
Van Laer passed away in 1955 at the advanced age of 85. His name deserves to be held in esteem by those interested in the history of New York State, but especially by those who live in the Albany, Hudson River Valley and New York City areas.
Arnold J. F. Van Laer, http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/albany/bios/staff/ajfvanlaer.html
Peter Douglas, “A Tribute to A. J. F. Van Laer”, New Netherland Institute, Exploring America’s Dutch Heritage”.
Descendants of Archivist during 1911 Capitol Fire donate Dutch Papers, Paul Grondahl, TIMES-UNION, May27, 2011.
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FIFTEEN PROMINENT DUTCH AMERICAN FAMILIES: THE VAN BURENS, KOCH BROTHERS, VOORHEES AND OTHERS, 2015
PROMINENT DUTCH AMERICANS IN U.S. GOVERNMENT LEADERSHIP POSITIONS, 2015
DUTCH PEGELS INVOLVED IN WARS
ALLIED EUROPE CAMPAIGN—1944/1945: TACTICAL MISTAKES, 2017
THE SECOND WORLD WAR IN THE NETHERLANDS: MEMOIRS, 2017
FRENCH REVOLUTION, NAPOLEON AND RUSSIAN WAR OF 1812, 2015