Inside the New York Public Library: The Milstein Division

It’s interesting the reasons why people have come to do genealogy research over the years. It used to be very popular to try to prove that you’re related to somebody that came off the Mayflower or that you’re related to Charlemagne, or some royalty. But now, in the past couple of decades, it’s been more about constructing a personal narrative. It’s about just knowing who you are and where you came from. The Milstein Division has one of the largest genealogical collections in the country. What makes it unique is that it’s open to the public, so you don’t need to be a member of a society, you don’t need to have any kind of academic affiliations in any way. You can just walk in and start using the collections. There’s a ton of different records. There are land records, census records, city directories, passenger lists, church records, burial records, passport applications, military draft records, family trees that were hand-illustrated. Anytime that your ancestor’s name
would appear on something, that automatically becomes of interest to a genealogist. If you do have names and dates and you use the online databases, you probably will find something, and it’s immediately satisfying for somebody when they they just type in a name and that record comes up that shows their
great-grandmother coming in through Ellis Island. It’s the wow factor. Besides our wonderful collections of historical monographs and serials, we also have tens of thousands of photographs, postcards, political ephemera. There are guide books which are particular favorite of mine. They’re a fantastic way of tracing not just the development of New York City over the years, but also people’s interpretation of the city and how they felt about the city. Just the other day, I was going through the New York City guide books again, and I found a guide book from 1969 that was for all people who were seeking vice, so it’s where to buy drugs and just where I’d like to go dancing till 4 in the morning. It’s great, and right next to that book on the shelf was what to do with your kids in the city, so you get this great picture of New York City in the late ’60s. There are over 60,000 photographs. The photographic views of New York City itself have about 55,000 photographs in it. This is a photograph from 1867, and what we see here is one of the first, if not the first, elevated
tracks going up on the East Side. You can see they’re beginning to pave the
streets. This is a period of intense growth in New York City’s history. There are people who come into the division already interested in history and historical collections, and then there are the people who don’t know that they are — but once they start uncovering the documents, they realize that they feel this personal connection to the past that they weren’t aware up previously, so it’s hard to advertise that in a sense, because who knows what you will find when you come to the division. But it’ll be great when you find it — if you find it. It’s hard to say that, but the people who do make that connection, they come back frequently.

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