Researchers commonly seek photographs of places in New York as they once existed in history. HistoryPin.com and WhatWasThere.Com have done admirable work in placing historic photos in their geographic context, however they represent but a fraction of available photos, and associated descriptive metadata can vary in accuracy and precision.
In the Milstein Division, our researchers frequently search for a residence or business belonging to an ancestor, the site of an historic event as it appeared before or during that event, neighborhoods as they appeared before a major change, and street photography of people in their day-to-day historic context. This type of photo research varies vastly from a researcher approaching the Library for the Performing Arts for images to a person studying photography as a process or an art form. This guide is predominantly focused on research of historical photos of a geographic location within New York City.
Searching the NYPL Digital Collections:
The NYPL Digital Collections portal allows access to various image collections from a variety of library divisions. Searching these collections is best done by cross streets, since exact addresses are rarely included in the metadata. For example, to search for images of the New York Public Library’s main Schwarzman building, one would search 42nd and Fifth. Numbered Streets are usually numeric while numbered Avenues are usually spelled out, one of NYC’s many nuances in place names.
Neighborhood names may not be included and may also have changed over time. At the time of this post, there was only one result for “Hell's Kitchen”, but many photos of the neighborhood could be found by searching for cross streets such as Ninth & 39th or Eighth & 35th. Because the digital collections contain images from across many disciplines, you will often see items such as maps, theater performances, and illustrations in the search results. The menu choices in the left column allow you to filter your search results.
In some cases, searching by landmark or building name will also yield results, but only if the name of the building was included in the metadata. For example, a search for “Empire State Building” delivers hundreds of images. A less well known building may not have its name included in the metadata: “Tenement Museum” yields no results, but its cross streets Orchard & Delancey yield dozens.
Searching Library Databases:
Historic photographs can also be found through the library’s databases. AP Multimedia Archive provides access to 700,000 photos, including a historic photo collection from the 1800s-1996. Use the advanced search option to locate photos by keyword, date range, location, and photographer, among other options. This database is accessible from outside the library with your New York Public Library card.
Photographs featured in newspapers can be searched through the Proquest Historical Newspapers database. Accessible on-site at all NYPL locations, this database contains newspapers which span from 1764-2009 and include major newspapers throughout New York and the United States.
New York City Guidebooks often have images of places such as hotels, museums, restaurants, and other places that would interest a visitor to the city. So, if you are searching for an image of a hotel from the 1950s, search guidebooks which were published in those years.
There are several institutions that are renowned for their photo archives and have rich collections of New York City images. In addition to the NYPL, you may want to reach out to the following organizations: