Sources for Urban Research
Anyone who reads a city history will immediately realize that only a small fraction of the population gains municipal recognition. A citizen prominent enough to be found in a major printed historical source will easily be found in other likely sources—land, census, church, probate records. For most urban ancestors, however, an often-productive search area is the neighborhood. Usually, the neighborhood will have its own library, where a researcher can expect to find more information on that immediate area, including local histories (sometimes still in manuscript form) and even neighborhood newspapers. Community newspapers allowed a great deal of space for local events and personalities ignored by big-city newspapers. A local library may also be the place to begin a search for school records, which are sometimes dispersed rather than in compact collections. The school records themselves are usually kept at the municipal level, but the library can provide area school addresses and district jurisdictions.
City neighborhoods and districts may have their own historical societies and museums, which are often affiliated with the public library. Even if they are not, the local librarian may know about them or they may be listed on the library’s website. Neighborhood historical societies, usually run by volunteers, are open at irregular hours and are rarely listed in telephone directories; but when they exist they can be gold mines of information about local residents and may have community photographs, scrapbooks, and personal mementos.
In 1976 the U.S. bicentennial prompted many communities and neighborhoods to investigate their heritage. Old-timers were interviewed, relics came out of attics, and basements gave up documents. Indexes of newspaper obituaries and cemeteries were compiled. Published local studies went to neighborhood libraries and often to university and community college libraries.
Check the main branch and the website of the city public library, the municipal library, and the city or county historical library for neighborhood sources as well. If the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood has changed or if the old neighborhood no longer exists, then the central repository for the city is the logical place to search for needed information. When searching major libraries for neighborhood information, you should check not only listings of the neighborhood itself but also its surrounding neighbors, especially if they shared a district or area name. The dominant nationality of a neighborhood may also be the key to locating information. Some examples include Germans in Old Town Area, South Side Irish, and Poles of the Milwaukee Avenue District. Still other neighborhoods were settled by mixed ethnic groups that shared a common occupation in a particular part of the city. The garment district, the stockyard area, the steel mill area—all might be classifications in a library card catalog. Modern urban studies frequently focus on specific bibliographies of master’s theses, dissertations, or books that can help further searches.
Photograph archives and graphics departments maintained by some libraries may provide photographs of cities, neighborhoods, streets, business establishments, and ancestral homes. The Graphics Department of the Chicago Historical Society catalogs its photographs by street address as well as subject (landmark, neighborhood, event). To draw from this collection, you need to know the changes in the names of streets and in the city’s numbering system, but such efforts usually add a valuable graphics dimension to the family history. Ask reference personnel for street directories and other such finding aids.