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New York City Neighborhood Research: Resources

Researching the history of the life of places in New York City takes on a life of its own.

Resources

Start simple: books. What has been written and published about the neighborhood? About the building? Books, or secondary sources (versus primary sources, like collections in the NYPL Manuscripts and Archive Division), are also useful when they have their own bibliography section - what resources did the writer use? This aids in rounding out your own bibliography.

For example: 

Subject headings are used in the library catalog to group similar materials together. Using subject headings to search library collections is more productive and well-rounded, yielding a greater sense of what the library makes available on the subject. Subject headings are formal tags, and refer to the description authority of the Library of Congress

They can seem non-intuitive: when you search the catalog, first use relevant keywords, then click through catalog records and scan for subject headings related to your subject. There also might be more than one subject heading for the same subject.  For example:

  • New York (N.Y.) -- History.
  • Manhattan (New York, N.Y.) -- Newspapers.
  • New York County (N.Y.) -- Newspapers.
  • Staten Island (New York, N.Y.) – Guidebooks.
  • Bronx (New York, N.Y.) – Periodicals.

For example, if you are researching the history of Harlem, but want to narrow down your subject to a particular aspect of the neighborhood, start by searching the NYPL catalog using the term broad phrase, “Harlem history.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The results seem overwhelming because the catalog searches everywhere the term “Harlem” and the term “history” appear in the same catalog record for NYPL books and materials. But scroll through the first or second page of results and find a title that seems somewhat akin to your particular interest.

A Short History of Harlem published by the Museum of the City of New York seems appropriate. Click the title to open the catalog record, and note the subject headings under “Subject.”

Click the subject heading, and see how the results are then streamlined to 234 titles assigned that subject heading. Also note the “Neighboring Subject Headings” in the right sidebar. Your research has now moved forward with more focus and traction.

Confusion over the use of subject headings? Just email us at the Milstein Division.

Newspapers are one of the most sought after resources by patrons, and recommended by librarians with super frequency. You never know what you will find in a newspaper, whether 1799 or 1999. For example: 

  • Business information
  • Public notices
  • Addresses
  • Obituaries
  • Shipping dataManhattan: Herald Square - [Stuff & Guff.]
  • Advertisements
  • Events

Sample questions:

  • When did they tear down that building?
  • Was a crime ever committed at that address?
  • What was the Election District number in 1933?
  • What was in the last will and testament of Howard Hughes?
  • What are those statues of the guys hammering a giant bell in Herald Square I pass by everyday on the way to work?

Local publications or national dailies, newspapers are available in subscription databases, free online databases, on microfilm, or as bound hard copies.  To get started, see our division’s Guide to Newspaper Research; also check our public programming schedule to attend the next class, Newspapers in Genealogy Research. Finding the right newspapers is specific to what, and where, you are researching, and as usual it is useful to reach out to a librarian to sort out your options

Historic NYC newspaper resources at NYPL are available through digital databases and on microfilm:

You might also browse the NYPL catalog using these two subject headings:

There are also a number of free online newspaper databases related to New York:

 

What did the area look like before the American Revolution? Or just after the Civil War? There are numerous digital image collections you can explore, which are explained elsewhere in this guide. But also be sure to include published pictorial works in your research pursuits, or illustrated works, which are especially useful for periods before the invention of the camera. Such volumes can also be useful for bibliographic data: image sources, individual photographers, archival photo collections, in addition to other published works. Three examples:

  • Palmer’s Views includes “past and present” juxtapositions, like these two pictorials from 1909 and 1746:

For a sense of time and place, guidebooks contemporary to the era you are researching add as much value to your research as a view of Central Park to a Fifth Avenue co-op. Our division has authored a guide to researching guidebooks - Old Time Tours: 19th Century NYC Guidebooks. Though the guide focuses on the 1800s, the same general research strategies apply to later periods, whether the early 1930s in All About New York: An Intimate Guide, by pre-Code Hollywood scrivener and former Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter Rian James, or the 2006 Avant Guide: New York City. What was the gallery scene in Soho like in the 1970s? Check Anderson & Archer's SoHo: The Essential Guide to Art and Life in Lower Manhattan. Subject guidebooks might feature locales in the neighborhood you are researching. A unique example is the glib, of-its-time I Hate New York Guidebook (1983), which countervails the iconic post-Fear City tourism campaign “I Love New York,” and was naturally published the same decade as New York on $1,000 a Day - Before Lunch (1981), itself the antithesis of all those cheap guides to the city which are as indigenous to the literature of New York City as Edith Wharton and James Baldwin.

 

The Milstein Division of US History, Local History, and Genealogy is a sibling division with the NYPL Maps Division. When you are researching an area, a site, a neighborhood, it is recommended to see it visualized on a map. A few recommendations to get started: 

An accurate way of obtaining data about a site is to consult an official publication that focuses on a certain aspect of the area. Such publications are typically put together by a government organization or private group. Some may circulate in the NYPL research catalog; some types of these reports were not widely printed and found in archival collections. These resources come into play at an advanced stage in research; more preliminary materials need to be exhausted first in order to determine if such a publication may exist in the first place.  

Some examples: