Researching Local History

Published July 9, 2018
Updated November 3, 2018

Whether you are a seasoned researcher or just a hobbyist interested in learning more about your neighborhood, researching local history can be a very rewarding undertaking. Unlike learning about big events that affected large numbers of people at the national or international level, learning about local history can reveal how even the most humble of acts can highlight the shared experiences that make us human. The stories that highlight the challenges and successes of local people over time can help build our empathy and reveal meaning in even the most modest and mundane aspects of our lives. Learning about the history of people and places at the town and neighborhood level can also help us better understand some of the larger and more profound events that took place in history. However, finding information about the people and places who may have not made it into the history books can be challenging. This guide offers some resources for finding out more about your local history.

Local Historical Society

The first place to start is at your town’s local historical society. Historical societies come in a variety of shapes and forms. Some may be quite small and relevant only to the boundaries of your town or city. Others cover material relevant to the entire state or region. While still others may document only a particular neighborhood or district within a city. Most tend to be small with few or no full-time staff. However, historical societies tend to be run by people who are very passionate about tracing and documenting their town’s history. They may own or have access to a range of documents relevant to your town’s history, from maps and official paperwork to historic newspapers and photographs. Often the gatekeeper to the historical society will have more than enough knowledge to help you find what you are looking for, even if you don’t have a particular document or artifact in mind. Keep in mind though that most small historical societies are supported entirely by volunteers. Be patient as it may take them a few days to get back to you.

Public Library

Probably the most overlooked place for finding local history is your local public library. Though tons of information in the world is available online, most people might be surprised to find out how much information resides in their local public library that isn’t available anywhere online. Even if it’s a tiny library with a not very well kept up collection, the local library is still the most likely place to find hyper localized information about your city or town. For smaller towns, libraries might hold historic property documents, such as plat maps, that in larger towns and cities would be held by the city or town planning board. Most local libraries will have historic street maps and some may also have historic city directories with the names and addresses of past residents. Librarians are very knowledgeable people who not only know what’s in the library, but can usually point you to where you can find it if the library doesn’t have it. Talk to a librarian.

University Library

University libraries are a great resource for a range of local information. Typically you can access the libraries at public universities and land-grant universities even if you are not a student or otherwise affiliated. Many private universities offer library services to non-affiliates for a fee, though a few may offer access for no charge at all. Also, you might be able to access materials held at private university libraries through the inter-library loan program at your local public university. Almost all university libraries have their collections listed online. Look there first to see if they have what you're looking for.

Local Newspaper Archives

One of the wonderful things about looking through old newspapers is that they really give you a sense of the time period. From the headlines, to the articles and advertisements, historic newspapers paint a picture of a time past in a way that almost no other resource does. Most historic newspapers will be on microfilm in a university library, though some larger public libraries might also have some national as well as local newspapers on microfilm. A few select newspapers have made their old issues available and searchable online through subscriptions you can access on-site in the library. The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America archive is a digital collection of historic newspapers from 1789-1963. Fulton History also offers a large collection of historic newspapers online. Newspaper archives can also be found in local public libraries as well as university libraries. Some historical societies may carry specialized newspapers and local newsletters. Increasingly, some of the larger mainstream newspapers (such as The New York Times, The Detroit News, and The Boston Globe) have digitized their archives and made them available to the public for a fee. Keep in mind though that often (though not always) these same archives are available for free on microfilm in a public or university library.

Local and Regional Museums

Like the local library, local and regional museums can be a treasure trove of hyper-localized information. A good place to start is the local or regional historical museum, if your area has one. If there isn’t an historical museum, even an art museum or other specialist museum might have useful information. Many museum collections include archived works that are not currently on display; so keep in mind that the museum may hold documents and other artifacts that could be useful to you, even if you’ve never seen them in an exhibit at the museum. Archivists and curators at smaller local and regional museums are often knowledgeable about local history—even if the history isn’t directly related to the museum collections.

Environmental Data

For many years, it was difficult to find historic environmental data without personally visiting the archives of the institutions that collected the data. Luckily today, many environmental agencies are making their historical data publicly available on the internet. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Historical Topographical Maps program aims to make publicly available the hundreds of thousands of contour maps created by the agency since its inception in 1884. It’s a large-scale and ongoing project; if they don’t currently have the map you are looking for, check back again in a few months. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has similarly been building a digital archive of past environmental data that focuses on climate and weather data. The archive includes hourly and daily reports from weather stations going back to 1981 along with other older weather data such as precipitation, wind, snowfall, and radar data. The FEMA Flood Map Service Center offers historic and contemporary flood maps and the USGS Earth Explorer has historic aerial imagery for many areas in the country.

Land and Property Data

Data about land and property are often the most sought after information when it comes to researching local history. Whether for an official purpose or out of pure curiosity, finding out the history of your property can reveal some pretty interesting stories. In some cases, you may need to find the history of an address specifically or you may want to learn the history of your street entirely. Luckily, land and property data have been pretty well documented for many years because they are the basis for establishing tax rates and collecting taxes. Land and property data can include a variety of information, such as the dimensions of property boundaries, the coordinate location of property, the taxable value of parcels and buildings, the taxes paid in a given year on a property, the owners of a property, architectural drawings of any buildings on a property, and information regarding the zoning and other restrictions on a property.

However, the sources for land and property data aren’t very consistent from state to state. In some places, you’ll find land and property data at the county assessor’s office; in others, it will be at the county Register of Deeds; still others hold land and property data at the city level in the form of plat maps held by the department concerned with building codes, zoning, or planning and development. While most will have historic land and property data in the form of paper files in their offices, not all will have that data available digitally online. Very small towns or unincorporated villages might have land and property data maps stored at the local library.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are a great resource for historic information about a particular building or parcel. The Sanborn Company created fire insurance maps beginning in the mid-1800s that detailed various information about buildings for insurance purposes. Information in the Sanborn maps include building height, materials in the framing, roof, and walls, number and location of doors and windows, distance from the curb, and the street address of the building. Sanborn Maps are the most comprehensive and accurate source for historical data about specific buildings.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development publishes datasets from the U.S. Census and other government sponsored surveys that details information about housing across the country, including aggregate information on historic real estate prices. Though much of their information isn’t very localized, it can be helpful to give context to your local research.

Historic maps can be a great resource for learning more about how an entire area has changed over time. Many historical maps can be found in local and university library collections. Additionally, comprehensive historical map collections can be found online in the David Ramsey Map Collection, the Perry-Castañeda Map Library, and the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center.

Demographic Data

These days dozens of websites exist that provide census data. However, not all of these websites are created equally. If you are looking for historical census data about particular individuals, most genealogy websites offer access to that data for a fee. The U.S. Census releases historical census data on individuals only after 72 years, in order to protect the privacy of the people tabulated in the surveys. Thus, the most recent census data available on genealogy sites is for the year 1940. However, anonymized census data is available up through the current census year. Anonymized census data includes information such as population counts by race, age, and gender as well as data regarding the income and education level of individuals, among a host of other data gathered. All anonymized data gathered through the U.S. Census has been made digitally available on the U.S. Census website. However, the U.S. Census site is notoriously difficult to use, despite its more recent American FactFinder with its user-friendly interface for accessing the enormous amount of data the census site holds.

For a more intuitive and user-friendly access to free census data, use PARCi. PARCi maps census data for you, displaying demographic information at the nation, state, county, city, census tract, and census block scales. Simply click on the map to pop up charts that visualize the data held in the maps. Then you can easily export the maps and data charts for offline viewing.

PARCi data comes from the NHGIS, an archive of historical geographic data created and maintained by researchers at the University of Minnesota. NHGIS streamlines U.S. Census data, cleans it up a bit, and make the files freely available and accessible to the public. NHGIS files are in spreadsheet and GIS format; so to use the NHGIS files directly, you will need access to GIS or data analysis software. If you don’t have access to GIS software, use PARCi to view census data.

If you’re looking to find lots of information about a single city or place, Stats America offers basic neighborhood profiles while Data USA offers comprehensive data on just about any place in the U.S. — but unfortunately neither site offers historical data. Social Explorer offers historical data drawn from the decennial census but they do charge a monthly fee to access it.

A less explored resource for historic demographic data are city directories. In the dark ages before the internet, we used to collect names, addresses, and phone numbers of people in city directories. If you wanted to find information about someone, you simply looked them up in the big book. The Internet Archive has a great repository of city directories, some going back to the 1800s. The FamilySearch genealogy site also has a great wiki about city directories that includes a directory of city directories.

Also, be sure to check your city’s Office of Vital Records to find birth, death, and marriage records, all of which are public record and accessible to anyone.

Didn’t find what you’re looking for? Need help researching local history? Looking to build a complete historical profile of a building, neighborhood, or city? Let us help.