The libraries, archives and other cultural institutions may be closed, but if you need a little dig through history to distract you there are plenty of resources online to provide the service.
With an increasing focus on digital accessibility, many collections are dramatically increasing their offerings each year. If you want to research your own house or a building in your neighborhood that has caught your eye, hunting through some online resources is a good place to start.
Here’s a small sampling of some of the collections that Brownstoner uses just about every day when chasing down history in the borough:
1. Tax Photo Collection
When these came online in the fall of 2018 it was a boon to research. The collection is the creation of teams of photographers who fanned out across the five boroughs beginning in 1939 to document every single taxable structure in the city. The black and white photographs are essential in documenting the changes to a building over time, and for some structures they the only known historic photo to exist. The search function isn’t perfect, so it does require some patience.
2. Brooklyn Eagle Collection and More
Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection
A quick search through the pages of the historic Brooklyn Eagle can turn up sales ads, photographs, sketches and more that hold important clues when tracking down the story of a building or the people who lived there. The digitized collection spans 1841 to 1963 so there is plenty to keep you busy. When hunting, try a variety of search terms for the most comprehensive results. For instance, searching “13 Pineapple” and “13 Pineapple St” may turn up different stories. You can now try it while hunting through even more newspapers. The Brooklyn Collection announced on Twitter that publications normally only available on site at branches will be available from home during the coronavirus crisis.
3. Long Island Star
Brooklyn Historical Society
If you are searching for early 19th century history don’t forget to check out the pages of the Long Island Star. The Brooklyn Historical Society has digitized a span from 1809 to 1840, and their collection also includes Brooklyn Star and Brooklyn Daily Star. One important research tip: Streets were often renumbered, especially in neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights. So, if you are tracking an address, make sure you have the correct one.
4. NYC Fire Insurance, Topographic and Property Maps
New York Public Library
Hunting down the construction date of a building means cross referencing multiple resources, and maps are critical to that effort. The digital map collection of NYPL includes maps for all five boroughs, and the Brooklyn section is particularly strong, with maps from 1855 to 1920. The maps often indicate building usage, construction material, number of floors and other info.
5. New York Historic Photo Map
New York is rich with historic image resources. Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Museum, New York Public Library and others all have extensive collections documenting changes to the borough over time. While each collection should be delved into individually, a quick first-step resource is the Urban Archive map-based search platform, which launched in 2019. It allows users to enter an address or just click on a highlighted location to bring up historic images from more than 40 participating organizations.
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