Local history research seeks information about a place, the way genealogy research pursues information about a person. It is a common subject at the reference desk in the Milstein Division of US History, Local History, and Genealogy: “I want to know more about my building,” or “What was the neighborhood like back in the day?” Constructing the reality of a historic neighborhood is analogous to Jurassic scientists recreating the living image of a brontosaurus using only the record left by fossils.
The subject of this research guide is “site research,” which encompasses both individual building research, and researching a neighborhood, area, locale or region - any physical spot on a map within fixed boundaries. Some resources are specific to what kinds of information a researcher may be looking for – like an address directory for researching a building, or a local history monograph about a neighborhood – and some resources are useful in general, like image collections and newspapers. Yet, essentially, anything can count as a resource for local history: a matchbook, business card, advertisement, vintage dress label, old beer can - anything that yields dimension for a time and a place. Research methods demand an open mind. If you gain an iota of knowledge or insight, if there is a turn in your perception, a new ray of light on the past, no matter how faint, then that resource belongs in your bibliography (which this librarian vouches is allowed to include materials other than books and still sustain its original meaning).
Note that this guide expands and updates our division’s prior guide, Researching New York City Neighborhoods, published in 2015, with a focus on the approach to researching a locale, setting the mood to get started, in addition to providing more recently available resources.