New York Public Library Local History and Genealogy

Reading Room and part of the Genealogy collection at the Milstein Division

Reading Room and part of the Genealogy collection at the Milstein Division

IMG_1892The Irma & Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History & Genealogy at the New York Public Library is one of the oldest genealogical collections freely open all.  It is situated within the iconic flag ship location, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building taking a whole block at Fifth avenue and 42nd street in the City’s mid town.

On my first real wet, rainy day of the trip I was pleased to meet its manager, Maira Liriano.  She was good enough to speak with me and explain the brief history of the library and the local history and genealogy services.   Except for the children’s centre, the building houses Reference collections only.   The Mid-Manhattan Library across Fifth Avenue is the nearest circulating neighbourhood library.  There are about 82 branch libraries in total.

Maira has been with the Division for 11 years and manages about 13 staff including librarians, assistants and retrieval assistants.

Genealogy and local history has always been a focus in the library since the initial Astor and Lennox collections were merged to establish the library, which opened in 1911.

Part of Maira’s role includes collection management. The “local history” component of the collection actually consists of histories from all over the USA but it does have a strength for New York state.  The genealogy collection covers resources for the USA as well as international content.  Items in the reference library are uniquely classified and shelved according to the Billings classification system.

The local history and genealogy collection operates in context with the library’s larger collection.   The collections in the main reference library, generally speaking, cover humanities, social science, performing arts and business and to a lesser extent, science.  A lot of the collection is stored off site (and more will be as the new circulating library within the space takes shape) and is comparable with that of the Library of Congress and British Library.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a concentrated effort to microfilm records as a method of preservation.  As a result,  “a ton” of microfilm can still be accessed by researchers and there is a dedicated room for this near the local history and genealogy division.   Copyright starts in 1923 so items published since then cannot be digitised without permission.

The Library has partnered with the Library of Congress for their long term newspapers project, Chronicling America.  In addition they have partnerships with Ancestry and ProQuest. The collection – New York Emigrant Savings Bank 1850-1883 is one example of this.  They also have a relationship with Google Books and Internet Archive.  They are the only Public Library member of the HathiTrust; a partnership of major research institutions and libraries working to ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future.   In addition the library digitises its own content for online access including photographs.

Maira is proud of the collection, which includes unique items such as family histories, books and periodicals, in addition to online resources.  They can certainly meet the needs of a serious researcher but Maira would still like to see the collections being used more.   The interest in genealogy has certainly increased since Maira’s arrival at NYPL.  At least three episodes of Who Do You Think You Are have been filmed in either the local history and genealogy division or other parts of the library, including the episodes featuring Susan Sarandon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Edie Falco.

This is the place to come to do family history research if you are in New York City.  The Division caters for both beginners and advanced researchers.  Professional genealogists are also regular visitors.  Regular classes and lectures are also scheduled for the quarterly seasonal NYPL Now!  program/brochure.

In 2008, the Division received a major donation of the collection of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society.  They had made the decision that they needed to downsize and could no longer manage their collection.  Founded in 1869 (around the same time as the founding Lennox and Astor collections), the collection has included some duplication but also some fantastic files on individual family histories.  Funding to manage the collection came with the donation and two years later, the collection has been re-housed where necessary, and catalogued.  Where appropriate, items such as maps have gone directly to the map collection.  The donation has strengthened the relationship with the Society who still operate and a number of programs are now presented in partnership.

The big news at the Library is the “Central Libray Plan” which will create a state-of-the-art circulating library within the famous Stephen A Schwarzman Building.   An early stage has been completed.  Maira showed me the empty stacks area; quite a sight with its beautiful ornate cast iron decorative shelving – all empty!

Maira also showed me some short cuts to links on the library website.  I was already aware that the website was a BiblioCommons product, which delivers an integrated “social discovery” experience, as is Yarra Plenty Regional Library – so it was terrific to get a small personal tour of the website.    The Digital Gallery is a terrific showcase for over 800,000 photographs (search “Australia” to find many images from historic cigarette cards).

The DirectMe NYC: 1940 was a terrific initiative when the 1940 census was released.  It was developed by the library as a tool for researchers to access phone books in order to find an address to then look up individuals in the census.  The census is now more accessible via name searches.  The Library partnered with the New York Times for the project whereby news headlines of the day were fed into the website. Individuals can also contribute content.

For a taste of the Milstein Division at New York Public Library check out this terrific video.


About infolass

Local and Family History Librarian, Yarra Plenty Regional Library, Melbourne, Australia
This entry was posted in Margery C Ramsay Scholarship, New York and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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