Yale University has a long and distinguished history of collecting and preserving primary resources and making them available for teaching and research. Many of these materials were first collected by faculty and other members of the Yale community to support their own research activities and eventually placed in the library for long-term preservation and wider availability. The library maintained some of these collections, such as the Edward House Collection and the Crawford Theater Collection, as separate entities with their own curators for many years. Established in 1938, the Historical Manuscripts Room became the de facto custodian for many collections that did not have their own curators.
Yale's secretaries have taken an abiding interest in the preservation of the university's records. Franklin Bowditch Dexter (1842-1920, university secretary, 1869-1899) was especially active in this regard, assembling and publishing significant historical documents and works on Yale's history, particularly in the eighteenth century. Around 1906, the Yale Memorabilia Room, a department within the library, began acquiring publications, records, and objects, particularly those related to Yale College classes, and a curator was appointed in 1918. The Yale Archives is first mentioned as a separate library collection in 1945, but a university archivist was not appointed until 1958, although the associate curator of Yale Memorabilia did some work on the archives prior to that time.
In 1961, the library established the combined position of university archivist and curator of historical manuscripts and the House Collection, beginning the merger of many of the special collections into their current configuration. The construction of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the subsequent transfer of the library's rare books, literary collections, and other selected special collections to this repository in 1963, led to the consolidation of the Yale Memorabilia collection, the Yale Archives, the historical manuscript collections, and the House Collection in the former Rare Book Room in Sterling Memorial Library. The appointment of Herman Kahn as associate librarian for Manuscripts and Archives in 1969 completed the establishment of Manuscripts and Archives in its current form.
The university archives began receiving partial funding directly from the university in 1980, and the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies became a program within Manuscripts and Archives in 1982.