The Brooklyn Historical Society library receives questions every day from all over the world. Here are some the questions we are asked most often; please check below to see if we’ve answered your question.
Who can use the library?
Anyone can use the library, as long as they agree to abide by the library rules and procedures. We welcome scholars, teachers and students at all levels, genealogists, artists, documentarians, and anyone else curious about the Brooklyn history and culture.
Do I need an appointment to use the library?
For details on visiting the library, please see our Visit the Library page. You do not need an appointment to use any of the library books described in our online library catalog, atlases, city directories, or the searchable databases of digitized images and oral histories from our collections. An appointment is required to use the archival collections. If you aren’t sure whether you need an appointment, you can email us at [email protected]
Can I take pictures in the library?
Yes. You can take pictures of the library without restriction.
Researchers may also take photographs of materials in the BHS collection. Only hand-held cameras and cell phone cameras may be used, and if the device has a flash, it must be disabled. Video recordings are not permitted.
All photographs must be taken using available light within the reading room, and the photographer’s feet must remain on the floor at all times. No additional equipment is permitted, including but not limited to additional lighting sources, tripods, chairs, stools, or ladders.
Manuscripts, maps, broadsides, and other single sheets must be kept flat on the table during photography. Books, bound manuscripts, and other bound materials must be photographed while in a cradle.
Can I bring my laptop? Do you have Wi-Fi?
Yes, you may bring your laptop and use it in the library. Please note that there are a limited number of electrical outlets available to visitors; we advise charging your battery before your visit. There is access to free wireless internet in the library.
What kind of materials does the library hold?
Our holdings include over 33,000 books, 1,600 archival collections, 1,200 oral history interviews, 50,000 photographs, 8,000 artifacts, 300 paintings, and 2,000 maps which document the commercial, residential, community, and civic development of the borough.
What is the difference between a library and an archive?
Though often housed in the same building and served by the same staff, libraries and archives are different in many ways. Libraries usually contain published books and periodicals, and often, other published materials such as maps, movies, and recorded music. Library collections are good for answering basic factual and statistical questions and obtaining general background information about people, places, and events.
Archives usually contain unique, original, or rare materials created or compiled by an individual, family, organization, business, or government. These materials can include documents, deeds, diaries, manuscripts, scrapbooks, photographs, film, drawings, and oral history interviews and transcriptions. These materials are gathered into collections of materials created by the same entity or documenting the same subject, and given titles like the Jane Smith Papers or the Brooklyn Real Estate Brochure Collection.
Many people find it best to start their research with library materials to understand the basic facts and background around their research topic, and then move on to archival materials for more in-depth, specific research; seek out a first-hand account of an event or period in time; or prove or disprove an idea they have developed during preliminary research.
I'm teaching a class and would like to bring my students in to learn more about doing research in the library. What should I do?
We are happy to offer orientations to our library resources for groups of high school, college, and graduate students or to community groups. These orientations can be general bibliographic instruction about the difference between archives and libraries and primary and secondary sources, and how to use archival collections; or they can be tailored to highlight our resources most pertinent to your class assignment. Please contact us for more information.
Research at the Library
Can I check out the books in your library?
No. Books are not available for use outside the Othmer Library. Our materials are a mix of recent publications and rare or unique materials. For the protection of these valuable collections, all materials must be used in the library.
I don't live in New York and can't come visit BHS. How can I do research in the library?
If you know that we hold materials important to your research, but you are unable to visit the library, we suggest hiring a local researcher. For genealogical research, the Association of Professional Genealogists website has a listing of professional researchers in the New York area. We are also happy to recommend local researchers familiar with our collections who may be available for freelance research projects. Please email us for this list.
If you are unsure whether we hold materials relevant to your research, our staff is happy to help you. Please see Research and Collections for further information about finding out what we have.
I want to see an object in your museum collection. Can this be arranged?
No. The museum object collection is stored off-site and is not publicly accessible.
How do I find vital records? Court records? Naturalization records?
We do not hold any court or naturalization records in the library. We do have a selection of transcriptions of various vital records in the library, which you can find in our library catalog by doing a keyword search using the term “vital records”. We also suggest consulting the following resources:
The main repository for vital records in New York City is the NYC Municipal Archives, which has birth, marriage, and death records. The Italian Genealogical Group has an ever-growing list of databases. Its databases for vital records are particularly helpful with regard to trying to find marriage (there is a separate database for grooms and brides) and death certificate numbers.
The Brooklyn Supreme Court Law Library has briefs and reports for Supreme Court, appellate court, and court of appeals cases from various time periods. A thorough explanation of the Brooklyn Supreme Court Law Library’s holdings is available on its website.
The NYC Municipal Archives has a collection of court records that covers New York and Kings County court records.
The National Archives and Record Administration in New York also has a collection of federal court records.
If the will you are looking for was probated in Kings County (Brooklyn), it will be in the Surrogate Court’s Record Room, Room 109. The Surrogate’s Court is located at 2 Johnson Street in Brooklyn (near Borough Hall).
The King’s County Clerk’s Office has naturalization records from 1907 to 1924. For naturalization records after 1924, you will need to contact the New York facility of the National Archives and Records Administration. You can also search indexes of naturalization records through the Italian Genealogical Group, including for non-Italians.
Do you have photographs online? Do you have a picture of my house? Can I get a copy of a photo in your collection?
A portion of our photography collections are searchable online here and we are constantly adding to this online gallery. The entire photography collection may be searched in our image database at the library.
We have photographs of many, but not all, properties in Brooklyn. You can search for an image of your home using any of the resources described above. The New York Municipal Archives photographed every building in the five boroughs over a three year period, from 1939-1941. You can request these images on its website.
We provide photocopying of materials in our collections for educational and personal use to the extent permitted by U.S. Copyright Law and BHS policies. If the photocopying will not damage the item, we will photocopy it.
High-quality digital reproductions of collection material are available for images in our online gallery as per our fee schedule. Please search the online image catalog and submit a request for this service. High-quality image reproductions are delivered as digital files; no physical duplicates are available. For more information, please go to Photocopies & Reproductions.
How do I suggest someone for an oral history interview?
To suggest someone for BHS to interview for the Oral History Collection, please email us.
Do you have any tips for conducting an oral history interview?
The key to a good interview is to listen with your full attention and ask open-ended questions that encourage your narrator to keep sharing. This can be a powerful experience for both you, the interviewer, and your narrator. The recorded document is a great gift for generations to come. Be sure to state the date, location, and names of people involved at the beginning of your recording (this will help inform future listeners) and to take steps to preserve the recording by keeping backup copies and transferring it to the current media form as technology changes. For suggestions of questions to ask check out the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, StoryCorps’ question list, or Paul Thompson’s Life-Story Interview Guide in the book The Voice of The Past (Oxford, 2000). Donald Ritchie’s Doing Oral History is another helpful book.
For suggestions on what kind of recording equipment to use, the Vermont Folklife Center has a very helpful guide to digital recording here.
BHS also offers a workshop for community oral historians embarking on their own projects called Collecting Community Oral Histories. Please contact the Oral History Program for details.
My Collections and Artifacts
Can you tell me how much my antique or historic object/book/artwork is worth?
BHS collection staff are trained to appraise documents and objects for enduring value for historical, legal, political, and other types of usefulness to people. We are prohibited from assigning monetary value to material in our holdings and offered for donation. If you are interested in or need a monetary appraisal of historic materials, we recommend contacting the three major appraisal organizations: Appraisers Association of America, International Society of Appraisers, or American Society of Appraisers.
How do I take care of my old photographs/books/documents/objects?
To learn more about caring for your own old and rare materials, we recommend visiting the following websites, which offer useful information on products and techniques for caring for a variety of objects.
The Northeast Document Conservation Center. The center is a national and international resource for preservation education.
The Library of Congress Preservation Department. This website provides simple instructions, as well as links to more comprehensive information for “Preparing, Protecting, Preserving” many types of family treasures. Using this information, you will have the means to prepare ahead of time, to protect everyday, and if need be to preserve family treasures following a disaster. Proper care, handling, and storage of your treasures will help ensure that they are available for generations to come.
The Henry Ford Museum’s Benson Ford Research Center’s in-house conservation staff have developed these Preservation Fact Sheets to assist in caring for your historical materials. These fact sheets provide basic information on the care, cleaning, and handling of a particular type of artifact, referral information to other conservation organizations, and a bibliography of authoritative works.
The National Archives & Records Administration. Learn more about the professions’ tools and tips, about current issues of concern, and how to join the mission of preserving and making accessible records.
Your Old Books by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Publications Committee. This guide addresses some frequently asked questions about rare and older books and their values. The answers are meant only as general responses to these questions, and many possible exceptions are not described. No attempt has been made to identify or to evaluate individual books, nor does RBMS have the resources to respond to such requests. The appendix lists online and print resources for more information on the questions covered.
I have something I would like to donate to Brooklyn Historical Society. What should I do?
All potential donations go through a standard process, which starts with you filling out a donation form to tell us more about what you would like to donate. After we receive the form, inquiries are forwarded to the appropriate staff to evaluate and are then brought before our Collection Committee for a final decision. The committee is composed of both staff and trustees. It meets six times per year, so response time will depend upon the meeting schedule and agenda. Due to the volume of donation inquiries we receive, we will only respond if we are interested in acquiring the materials.
For further explanation of our collecting practices, please review our Mission Statement and Collection Development Policy.
I am interested in working or volunteering in the BHS library, what should I do?
Please see the intern and volunteer opportunities, and instructions on how to apply for them on the job opportunities section of our website.