Pathfinder Repository


New York City History: Primary Sources Online and Elsewhere

This Pathfinder is no longer being actively maintained by ipl.

This is a guide to help you locate primary sources on the history of New York City, on the World Wide Web and otherwise. It will also provide a list of useful organizations you can contact for assistance in your research. The following links will take you to the section of the pathfinder you wish to see.

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a source that was created during or immediately after the event or period it documents. For example, a photograph taken at Ellis Island, an eye-witness account of the immigration procedures, or a manuscript describing the author’s experience there would all be considered primary sources. Primary sources can be distinguished from secondary sources, which are sources created at some later time. A description of Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th century, if written today, would be considered a secondary source (although it might be based on primary sources.)

Primary sources are useful because they can give detailed information about a place, time period or event, as well as because they give us insight into the views and experiences of people without showing them through the lens of later events. Primary sources from New York City’s history can include diaries of New Yorkers since its inception, maps of New York at different stages of its growth, photographs and even sound recordings.

Internet Resources

Some reference works you may find helpful for locating primary sources include:

Columbia University E-Guide to New York City History
From the Columbia University Libraries, this portal site provides links to a variety of other sites on New York City history.

Gotham Center for New York City History
Offers discussions, resources and books for the history of New York.

NYC History Resources on the Web
Maintained by the City University of New York, this “Virtual New York” is full of resources, books and information available.

The following are publicly accessible resources that make primary source material available on the World Wide Web. Many of the primary sources are images, while others are in text or audio formats.

@ 149th St
New York has long been the epicenter of the graffiti art movement. This unusual resource documents the history of graffiti with many photographs of murals.

American Family Immigration History Center
A membership organization, the AFIHC allows the public to search its lists of people who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924, and may provide some extra information on individuals.

American Memory Project: Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society
Through the American Memory Project, the Library of Congress makes primary sources on many aspects of American history available on the Web. These are items from New York City during the Civil War era.

The Museum of the City of New York
The Museum of the City of New York produces online exhibits on a regular basis showcasing different highlights throughout the history of New York.

How the Other Half Lives
A hypertext version of Jacob Riis’ seminal 1890 book of journalistic essays and photos, documenting the lives of New York City’s urban poor.

Moving Uptown: Nineteenth Century Views of Manhattan
The Center for the Humanities at the New York Public Library has put together this online exhibit of prints and drawings of upper Manhattan, largely during the mid 19th century.

1998 marked the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of Greater New York€”the Five Boroughs as we know them today. Although the celebration itself is history now, The NYC100 website provides still-relevant information about the city’s past.

Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance
This website documents the fine arts€”emphasizing but not limited to painting€”produced by African-American

William Feehan, Fire Chief
An oral history of the late William Feehan, Commissioner of the New York Fire Department, who was killed at his command post when the southernmost tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.


The following organizations may be able to help you gain access to primary sources:

New York Genealogical and Biographical Society

New-York Historical Society

New York City Department of Records and Information Services – 355 years of New York City Government Records

This pathfinder created by Abigail Leah Plumb. It was updated by Merry Uk for Dr. Eileen Abels Info 780 Course at Drexel University, Spring, 2008.