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History resources

Links to guides to history resources in the Princeton University Library, plus JP and senior thesis help for history majors.

Local history research, step by step

Starting a research project on US local history? Here are some questions to ask:

  1. Is there any scholarly work -- by historians or by researchers in other fields -- on the time and place you want to study? Is there a magazine or journal that covers the history of your place? Search America: History and Life and PAIS
  2. What newspapers were published in that time and place? How can you access them? What about radio or TV broadcasts?
  3. Are there local government documents that are relevant to your research? How can you access them?
  4. Are there photographs of that time and place? Maps?
  5. Are there personal memoirs, business records, or other types of primary sources available to you?

If you can't find useful material by googling, try any or all of these tools. 



Archive Finder

Use search strategies like "newark new jersey zoning" or "pittsburgh municipal records"

Not sure where to start?

Encyclopedia of local history. Edited by Carol Kammen and Amy Wilson. 2nd ed. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 2012
History Reference (SH): E180 .K25 2012

Historical gazetteer of the United States. Paul T. Hellmann. New York : Routledge, 2005.
Trustee Reading Room Reference (DR): E154 .H45 2005

Secondary Sources

Primary Sources


You may use secondary sources and examine their notes to see which archives other authors have used.

In addition, consult local public and academic libraries, as well as historical societies, to see what collections they hold.

Finally, these two databases may also point toward archives of interest.


Local records

In general, the primary sources for local history can be seen only in the place that they document. Municipal archives, public libraries, and local historical societies all may have material of interest. While local newspapers may be available online or in microform, the records of local government are unlikely to have been published and are unlikely to have been digitized. That said, for recent material, try:

Index to Current Urban Documents  (1989+) Note: Documents issued prior to August 2000 are available on microfiche in the Social Science Reference Center. As of August 2000, documents are available full text online. For 1972-1988 indexing, use the paper index (DR) Z7165.U5 I654.
Access to full text PDF reports and documents generated by local government agencies, civic organizations, academic and research organizations, public libraries, and metropolitan and regional planning agencies in approximately 500 selected cities in the United States and Canada. Earlier documents are available on microfiche.

Making of Modern Law: Primary Sources, 1620-1970
Contains digitized and searchable copies of over 300 years of legal primary sources, such as early U.S. state codes, city charters, constitutional conventions and compilations, and other documents.

Gateway to North America: People, Places, and Organizations of 19th-Century New York
Digital collection of directories, member lists, advertisements, travel guides and other sources, chronicling the people and organizations of New York City from the late 18th through the early 20th century.

State records

Records of the States of the United States of America
1824 reels
Printed guide: Firestone Microforms Z1223.A1U47
This very large collection is the result of the 1940's State Records Microfilm Project, which located and reproduced state records from libraries, archives, and private collections. Includes legislative proceedings, statutory laws, constitutional records, administrative records, executive records, court records, and some local records. There is also material on Native American nations. The collection is arranged by state and covers the 18th and 19th centuries, plus parts of the 20th.

Territorial papers of the United States
Printed guide: Firestone Microforms CD3026.A52
Material from the National Archives, Record Group 59.4.3 Territorial papers. Includes "correspondence, reports, and copies of journals of proceedings of legislative assemblies." We have Utah 1850-1902 (6 reels); Montana 1867-1889 (2 reels); Wyoming 1870-1890 (6 reels); Idaho, Montana, Wyoming 1789-1873 (1 reel); and Wyoming 1868-1873 (1 reel).

State legislatures: a bibliography. Robert U. Goehlert, Frederick W. Musto. Santa Barbara, Calif. : ABC-Clio Information Services, c1985.
Firestone Z7164.R4 G574 1985

State Statutes: A Historical Archive (Hein Online)
This collection includes more than 1,600 volumes and nearly 2,000,000 pages of historical superseded state statutes.

We also have microform for material that is not included in the Hein online collections. Search the library catalog for "Heins superseded state statutes" to see if we have the set for your state.

WPA guides

Starting in the 1930's, the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administation compiled a series of guides to states and important cities in the U.S. They are known as the "American Guides Series" or as the "WPA guides." There is a complete list in Wikipedia ( Many if not all have been digitized and can be found at

For more information see also and

The WPA guides: mapping America. Christine Bold. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, c1999.
Firestone E175.4 .B65 1999

Resources for genealogists

The dividing line between local history and genealogy can be very thin, and the local historian may find resources created for genealogists useful:

Ancestry Library
Has approximately 4,000 databases including key collections such as U.S. Federal Census images & indexes from 1790 to 1930; the Map Center containing more than 1,000 historical maps; American Genealogical Biographical Index; Daughters of the American Revolution Lineage; The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1630; Social Security Death Index; WWI Draft Registration Cards; Federal Slave Narratives; and a strong Civil War collection.

HeritageQuest Online
Includes all of the images, & extensive indexing, from the 1790 - 1930 U.S. federal censuses. Offers more than 20,000 book titles, including nearly 8,000 family histories & over 12,000 local histories. Additionally, there are more than 250 primary-source documents such as tax lists, city directories, probate records, and more.

Online access to material from the National Archives documenting a wide range of topics in American history. Also includes genealogical material and a collection of small town newspapers. Formerly known as

For access to U.S. census returns, see also: Historical U.S. census

Finding photographs

Arcadia Press specializes in slim books of images with local interest. The series is called "Images of America" and their catalog can be searched by state. Princeton University Library does not hold many of them, but they are widely available through Borrow Direct or Interlibrary Loan.

AP Images  (1840s+)
Contains the current year's photo report from the Associated Press & a selection of more than 700,000 images from their negative & print library dating from the 1840s.

City maps

Digital Sanborn Maps  (1867-1970)
Sanborn fire insurance maps contain detailed information on urban structures, property boundaries, and streets. Provides historical information on the history, growth, and development of American cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

Historic Map Works
Digitized maps and atlases, plus associated illustrations and city directories. Includes cadastral maps of the U.S. Covers the world from the 15th-20th centuries.

Historical Topographic Maps

To find maps in the library catalog, use "maps" as a keyword, e.g. princeton new jersey maps

Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

The Rand McNally Commercial Atlas series and the Rand McNally Road Atlas series begin in soon after 1900, continue until the late 20th century, and are very useful for looking at regional change over time.

Mapping Inequality

Digitized maps of the Home Owners Loan Corporation made between 1935 and 1940, showing "redlining" practices used to perpetuate segregation in housing.

Old Maps Online

Historical maps, including Geological Survey maps



City directories

City directories of the United States through 1860; a collection on microfiche
Microfiche 70
6295 microfiches
Printed guide: Firestone Microforms Z5771.S7
Reproduces city directories from the collections of the American Antiquarian Society and elsewhere.

United States city directories, 1861-1881 [microform]
United States city directories, 1882-1901 [microform]

Microfilm S00559
Microfilm S00560
372 and 746 reels
Printed guide: Firestone Microforms Z5771.2 .C58 1984
See above.

In Archives Unbound

City and Business Directories                 County and Regional Histories & Atlases
Alabama, 1837-1929 Michigan
Arkansas, 1871-1929 Wisconsin
Louisiana, 1805-1929 California
Maryland, 1752-1929 Ohio
Mississippi, 1860-1929 New York
North Carolina, 1886-1929 Illinois
Tennessee, 1849-1929 Indiana
West Virginia, 1838-1929 Pennsylvania
Virginia, 1801-1929  
Florida, 1882-1929

New Jersey History