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Primary Source Research

Contacting and Visiting Archives

Primary sources can be found in a variety of repositories like archives, libraries, museums, and the web. The firs step in locating primary sources will generally be a simple web search or  a search on an aggregator of sources such as ArchiveGrid. Once you find a repository that might have the resources you need, look through their website to see if there is a catalog or finding aid that describes their collections. A finding aid is a guide to the contents of the archive - it usually contains information like dates, types of documents, amounts of documents, and physical location within the archive. More robust finding aids may include subjects and biographical information as well. This should help you locate the items you want to view.

Next, look for information on how to visit and request materials. Most institutions that hold primary sources require an appointment in order to visit the collection in person. This gives the archivist or librarian enough time to understand what you are looking for and pull the appropriate materials. From the time you contact the archive or library, expect it to be about 2 weeks until your actual visit. It is absolutely okay to ask the archivist or librarian a number of questions prior to your visit, as they may have ideas for relevant materials that you had not thought about. An example of communication with an archivist might read: “Hello, I am doing research on embroidery in the 1800’s. I saw in your finding aid that you have a number of embroidery workbooks in your collection, and I would love to take a look through them. Can you think of any other resources in your collection that might be relevant?”

When you go to the archive, expect that there will be a number of processes and rules in place. They may require you to fill out a form, leave your bags in a locker, and wash your hands before handling documents. This is all to protect the documents and keep track of usage.

Locating Primary Source Repositories in NYC

New York City has many historical societies, museums, and libraries where collections are housed and finding aids are available online. This listing below identifies popular local institutions that have physical collections on site. You can also locate physical and digital archives around the world using the tool ArchiveGrid.

Brooklyn Collection

Held at the Brooklyn Public Library, this collection holds resources in a variety of media types that show the history of Brooklyn, from pre-colonial times to today. Note: In February 2020 it was announced that the Brooklyn Collection and the Brooklyn Historical Society would be working to combine their archival collections.

Center for Brooklyn History

Formerly known as the Brooklyn Historical Society, CBH became part of Brooklyn Public Library in 2020 and is now free and accessible to all for research, education, culture and more. Our freshly renovated landmark building—home to the Othmer Library's magnificent reading room—is a trove of special collections, archives, ephemera, art exhibits and programs that bring our borough's rich history to Brooklynites of all ages.

Bronx County Historical Society

The Bronx County Historical Society has over one million objects including images, artifacts, and oral histories pertaining to the borough.

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Located within the New York Historical Society, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has a vast collection of precious artifacts including a letter from Christopher Columbus and proclamations made by Abraham Lincoln.

Historic Richmond Town

This collection is devoted to Staten Island history and contains objects from the 1600's to today.

Interference Archive

The Interference Archives explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements. This work manifests in an open stacks archival collection, publications, a study center, and public programs including exhibitions, workshops, talks, and screenings, all of which encourage critical and creative engagement with the rich history of social movements.

La Guardia and Wagner Archives

Hosted at La Guardia Community College, the La Guargia and Wagner Archives hosts a number of collections covering Queens local history, collections devoted to specific NYC mayors, and different organizations like NYCHA and REBNY.

Lesbian Herstory Archives

The Lesbian Herstory Archives is home to the world's largest collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities. 

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The Museum’s archives hold a number of documents pertaining to the residents of 97 and 103 Orchard Street including census records, immigration documents, newspapers, and personal artifacts.

Museum of the City of New York

The Museum’s archives contain a number of different materials including manuscripts and ephemera, as well as an entire collection devoted to theater in NYC.

New York City Department of Records

The Department of Records and Municipal Archives collects information from the New York City Government, and contains items such as birth, death, and marriage records, building photographs, and mayoral collections.

New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society primarily sorts their collections by medium: printed material, manuscripts, and graphic material. They also collect material during significant moments in New York history, such as natural disaster and pandemic, through their History Responds Collection.

Queens Historical Society

Covering all of Queens history, this collection includes all sorts of materials including artwork, manuscripts, maps, photographs, and genealogies. 


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