Seymour B. Durst, a real estate developer, created the Old York Library in the 1960s out of a deep personal interest in New York City history. Durst vigorously pursued his passion over the years, amassing a collection of approximately13,000 books, 20,000 postcards, as well as thousands of photographs, maps, newspaper tearsheets, and other ephemera housed in his 61st St. townhouse.

Upon his death in 1995, the Old York Foundation, established by Mr. Durst and now run by his family, continued the work of cataloging and preserving the Old York Library collection. In Spring 2000, the Old York Foundation donated Seymour Durst's significant collection of New York City books and memorabilia to the CUNY Graduate Center. The foundation also created an endowment to house and maintain the collection at The Graduate Center and to fund educational initiatives that utilize the library's rich historical materials. Soon after the Old York Library's arrival, The Graduate Center's New Media Lab launched Virtual New York (VNY), a new initiative combining the rich resources of the Old York Library with other New York City history projects, including relevant entries from The Encyclopedia of New York City, published by the Yale University Press. The first step in the VNY project is the construction of a Web site that provides digitized materials in a searchable database, drawn from the Old York Library collection and The Encyclopedia of New York City. These materials are also presented in a series of Web exhibits and special presentations. The first VNY exhibit is "DISASTER", which explores the ways human and natural tragedies have shaped and reshaped the city's economy, politics, and citizenry.

The ultimate goal of Virtual New York is to create a Web portal on New York City history that will be used by scholars, teachers, students and the general public. When it is completed, Virtual New York will function as a site for finding information in accessible, digital formats on the history of the city, and for researchers and scholars of New York City history to communicate easily with one another online.

The Old York Foundation endowment allowed the New Media Lab to fund two Durst Research Scholars, who work closely with Dr. Stephen Brier and Dr. Joshua Brown, Co-Directors of the New Media Lab, in conceptualizing, researching, and producing Virtual New York. The current Durst Research Scholars are Rebecca Amato and Irene Meisel, students in the Ph.D. Program in History. Pennee Bender and Ellen Noonan of the American Social History Project assisted in writing headnotes for "DISASTER".