There are warehouses of historical stuff dotted all over North America. Some of them, like the National Archives and the Library of Congress, are gigantic, with hundreds of thousands of linear feet of records see that last two posts). Others, like the Pottstown Historical Society, housed in a tiny former flower shop in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, has a collection totaling 125 linear feet. That’s not much, but if it has exactly what you’re looking for, well then it’s a gold mine.
In between the behemoths and the dwarfs are repositories of bewildering variety.
All these places can be broadly categorized into two sorts: Public and Private.
Into the first category fall places like state and local archives, libraries, some museums, and most public educational institutions.
The second category includes privately-endowed research centers and museums, like the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California or the Lycoming College Archives in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Most of these places are organized as non-profits entities. But just because they are privately-owned doesn’t mean the materials are closed to public researchers—it usually just means that access is more restricted.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these places.
State, County, and City Archives and Libraries
All states in the union maintain record keeping departments of one sort of another. For a list of links try the Council of State Archivists. Many states also have separate state historical societies (for a list, go here). The nature of the collections vary. The Keystone State’s archives, records, and vital statistics are maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. In Nevada the State Library and Archives handles both the old stuff and new.
County and city government archive departments are much rarer. It goes without saying that New York City has its Municipal Archives—a comprehensive collection of historical material, as well as vital statistics. They also have digitized and uploaded over 870,000 images. Philadelphia’s City Archives has nearly 90,000 photos and 5,000 maps online (with 2 million more images available in the stacks).
Private and Semi-Public Repositories
Within the Private category are company archives and libraries, few of which are readily available to outsiders. IBM has an enlightened policy toward their historical files. As they note in their Terms and Conditions for use, “It is the intent of the IBM Corporate Archives to make selected information publicly available in order to advance the study of science, information technology, and the IBM Corporation.” You can’t just wander in to peruse on your own, but the company will endeavor to help you with reasonable requests.
AT&T offers even more access to researchers: “Although the AT&T Archives and History Center exists to serve company activities and is not open to the general public, the Archives invites serious scholars to make use of the collections. We are delighted to supply digital copies of photographs or other select non-proprietary documents at no cost. Research visits, however, are the best means to access the collections, and must be scheduled in advance. Onsite databases are available to researchers for identifying archival materials.”
Some corporate archives are available through semi-public research centers. For example, the Hagley Museum and Library, outside Wilmington Delaware, houses the records of E.I. DuPont Nemours, the RCA Corporation (transferred from the now-closed David Sarnoff Library), the Singer Company, makers of sewing machines, and the famous industrial designer, Raymond Loewy. The Hagley collections total 34,000 linear feet, and several thousand items are now available as digital files—with more added every month.
The University of Miami houses the gigantic Pan American World Airways collection, numbering 960 boxes of everything you would ever want to know about the operations of this pioneering (and long defunct) airline. A detailed folder-level PDF finding aid is available online.
There must be thousands of historical societies in the U.S. Some are grand affairs, like the 189 year-old Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. HSP says it is one of the nation’s largest non-governmental repositories of documentary materials, and with a collection of some 20 million manuscripts, their claim is easy to believe.
Alas, while the Society is making great strides toward increasing its digital offerings, none of the online material is free, which is unfortunate. The December 1863 letter from General George Meade to his wife (below) is six pages long and a photocopy or PDF will cost you $9.00 (plus freight if you order a hardcopy).
One neat feature on the HSP website is the Hidden Collections Initiative, which brings together in one place links to 47 historical societies, museums, and collections in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Earlier we mentioned the tiny Pottstown Historical Society. Let’s take a look at what’s on offer.
The papers of two local families and two local companies are listed, as are a couple of collections of photographs. There are no online documents, just the finding aids. But that will change with time.
Among the big time players in historical collections is the multifaceted Huntington Library in Southern California. Founded by the very rich—and civic-minded—Henry E. Huntington in 1919, it is part archive, part library, part art museum, and part botanical garden. It is especially strong in material related to the American West. And as they like to say, “The Library’s collection of rare books and manuscripts in the fields of British and American history and literature is nothing short of extraordinary.”
The site can be a little hard to navigate if all you’re interested in are their manuscripts and photographs. From the home page click Library in the upper left. In the new window click Library Online Catalog. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a browse feature, so type in your Search and off you go.
I was looking for information about the Great Diamond Hoax, and knew that the personal papers of a high-powered New York lawyer peripherally involved in the scandal, Samuel L.M. Barlow, were at the Huntington. Unfortunately, the finding aid for the 211 boxes is pretty skimpy—there was nothing to browse. To get around this, I went back to search and put in the name of one of the story’s protagonists and got four hits, including a letter he had written to Barlow. Clicking on the listing revealed a brief, and helpful summary of the missive.
The “entrance requirements” for onsite research at the Huntington seem downright daunting. They have strict requirements for independent scholars like us. You need to complete a two-page application, stating who you are, what you want to do, what you’ve published, and include two letters of reference from “scholars in good standing [that] can attest to your need for access to the Huntington’s collections.” Yikes.
But . . . if you discover that the Library has materials you need, write them a nice email, with as many specifics as you can. They have responded very quickly to my requests, and have quite obligingly found stuff, reproduced it (either hardcopy or digital), and sent it to me (usually for a reasonable fee). The staff has always been very helpful.
TIP: If you need to rely on the staff to find stuff for you, be really nice, friendly, not too demanding, and try to build some rapport with the archivist you deal with. It’ll pay big dividends in the long run.
The Huntington’s Digital Library is small, but expanding rapidly. The example below is the online image of Ben Franklin’s Autobiography written out by Ben himself. Quite extraordinary. Digital. And free. You can print this and all the other items in the Digital Library yourself (though there may be some usage rights issues for some stuff).
So, that’s a brief look at more categories of brick and mortar History Warehouses. If you are Patient, Persevering, and Imaginative, you can find all sorts of stuff in all sorts of seemingly hidden nooks and niches all over the web. Good hunting.
In the next post we’ll get into digitized Historic Newspapers—free and fee; indispensable sources for writers and genealogists.
If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog.
Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.