Let me just start off by admitting that I’m in love with the New York Public Library Digital Collections. Why? Because it’s in these web pages that you can find books, ephemera, maps, and images that would otherwise not be easily available. Like an online museum, I could get lost in studying these digitized items (don’t even get me started on Anna Atkin’s Photographs Of British Algae ) that help us better understand history and ultimately our ancestors.
The New York Public Library’s Digital Collections is a “living database with new materials added every day, featuring prints, photographs, maps, manuscripts, streaming video, and more.” For the family historian it is a place to discover materials to research your ancestor as well as add social history context. In some cases these items are grouped into a “collection” and in others they are just solitarily digitized items just waiting to be discovered. This collection of over 746,000 items is huge in scope and depth but the following items from the collection give you an idea of its value.
New York City Directories
New York City Directories found in the Digital Collections span the years 1786 to 1934. These are digitized books and the Digital Collection's viewer allows you to page through the book, zoom, rotate, and even print. Each book’s page includes card catalog information as well as links to other websites with the same digitized content (such as the website Digital Public Library of America).
Yizkor Book Collection
The genealogically rich memorial books in the Yizkor Book Collection document communities destroyed in the Holocaust. “Most often privately published and compiled through the collective efforts of former community residents, they describe daily life through essays and photographs and memorialize murdered residents.” The Yizkor Book Collection’s About information states that the New York Public Library's holdings include about 730 books but fewer that number can be found in this digitized collection. Please note that these books are in Hebrew or Yiddish.
Summer Excursions for 1874
Ok, this book isn’t for everyone but I wanted to mention it because it is so unique and it’s a perfect example of what social history can be found in the Digital Collections. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s Summer Excursion Routes for 1874 appears to be incomplete (the introduction states that the book includes 300 routes) on the website but this travel brochure gives us a peek at what ephemera our ancestors may have had access to and, those with the funds, may have influenced them. We often think about our ancestor’s immigration or migration but don’t consider other travels that they could have taken including those to visit family or just for a holiday. As the introduction to this pamphlet concludes, "A glance through its pages cannot prove uninteresting, and may serve to guide summer travelers into pleasant, interesting, and profitable channels.”
Of course you knew I couldn’t write about a website without pointing out what food history is available! The Digital Collections actually has more than one menu collection but the largest is the Buttolph Collection of Menus which has almost 19,000 menus. “The menu collection originated through the energetic efforts of Miss Frank E. Buttolph (1850-1924), a somewhat mysterious and passionate figure, whose mission in life was to collect menus. In 1899, she offered to donate her existing collection to the Library -- and to keep collecting on the Library's behalf” which she did until her death in 1924, amassing over 25,000 menus (not all have been digitized).
So why is this collection important for family history? Menus provide us information about what foods were eaten during a specific place and time, prices, as well as food availability. Food history is an important part of family history and menus can provide some valuable information in that pursuit.
747,888 and Counting
No blog post could list every collection from the New York Public Library Digital Collections that I love. My hope is to just to give you a taste of what’s available. Don’t ignore this digital gallery because you don’t have New York ancestors. Yes, there are New York specific items but there’s so much more than that including North American maps, US postcards, and social history items that can help you better understand your ancestor’s life.
Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.