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Are you curious about your home's history? The library is an excellent digital resource for uncovering the history of your home, here's how.

By: David Decker
May 10, 2023

Library Resources for Home Research

When it comes to researching the history of your home, libraries can be a treasure trove of information. They offer a variety of resources, such as maps, atlases, newspapers, and property records. Maps and atlases can help you track the changes to your property over time, while newspapers can provide insights into the people who lived in your home and the events that occurred in your neighborhood. Property records can reveal details about previous owners, building permits, and other useful information.

But perhaps most excitingly, libraries can also house old photographs of your house. For example, our county library has a vast collection of photos of homes that were taken when they were newly built in the city. Many cities hired commercial photographers to inventory the homes they provided services to. In the Twin Cities, this occurred from the late 1800s to around the 1960s. These old photographs can provide a unique glimpse into your home's past and the history of your neighborhood.

Searching for home history in your library’s digital collections

Many libraries now offer extensive digital collections that allow you to search for information from the comfort of your own home. So, if you're ready to dive into the past and discover the secrets of your home's history, read on to learn more about how to use your library's digital collections to research your home's past.

County-level – To search for old photos, maps, and past homeowners, start by checking your county public library system's digital collections. Most library systems use similar software, so typing in your address (without the "avenue" or "street" designation) or just the street name should yield some results. Keep in mind that some photos may not include the full address, so you may need to get creative with your search terms.

For example, our Hennepin County Library in Minnesota offers a vast array of resources, including home photos, building permits, plat and zoning maps, architectural plans, city directories, yearbooks, and newspaper articles. Most of these are linked back to the address, it's incredible what you can discover just by exploring your library system's digital collections.

Pro tip: If you're interested in conducting a generalized search for homes in your area, try using the term "residence" instead of "home" or "house." This can help broaden your search and uncover more results.

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) – One great resource for exploring a wide range of historical materials is the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which offers access to 47 million images, texts, videos, and sounds from across the United States. This vast collection is the result of partnerships with numerous libraries and universities throughout the country, with the largest contributor being the National Archives and Records Administration.


It's worth noting that some materials may have watermarks. While this can be frustrating, try reaching out to the library to see if you can get a copy of the photo, usually they’ll be able to email one to you. In any case, the DPLA remains an invaluable resource for anyone looking to uncover the rich history of America's homes and communities.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is another fantastic resource for home researchers, with an enormous collection of historical materials that span the nation's history. While it can be daunting to sift through this vast collection on your own, HouseNovel has compiled a selection of home images with addresses from the Library of Congress database, making it easier for you to explore these materials and uncover hidden gems.

In addition to photographs, the Library of Congress offers access to a wealth of other resources, including maps, newspapers, and government documents. Whether you're a seasoned researcher or just getting started, there is no shortage of fascinating materials to explore here.

National Archives

The National Archives is an excellent resource for anyone interested in researching the history of their home. Here are some tips for using the Archives to uncover information about your property:

Start with land records: The National Archives holds a vast collection of land records that can provide valuable information about your property, including deeds, surveys, and land patents. These records can help you trace the ownership history of your home and its surrounding land.

Check the census records: The census is a rich source of information about the people who lived in your home over time. The National Archives holds census records from 1790 to 1950, which can help you learn about the occupations, ages, and family structures of past residents. Learn more about how to research census records by address here.

Look for military records: If your home has a long history, it's possible that some of its residents served in the military. The National Archives holds a vast collection of military records, including service records, pension files, and more. These records can provide insight into the lives and experiences of the men and women who once called your home their own.

Explore photographs and other visual materials: The National Archives holds a vast collection of photographs and other visual materials that can help you visualize the history of your home and its surroundings. From historic maps and aerial photos to architectural drawings and historic images of your neighborhood, there are countless resources available to help you better understand the past.

To access the National Archives' collection of materials, start by visiting their website and exploring their online catalog. From there, you can search for specific records or browse collections related to your area of interest. And if you need further assistance, don't hesitate to reach out to the Archives' knowledgeable staff for help.

The National Register of Historic Places

While not a library, The National Register of Historic Places is a valuable resource for researching historic properties, districts, and sites that have been recognized for their historical significance at the local, state, or national level. This resource can be particularly useful if you are in a historic district, as there may have been a survey of the area that includes photos of homes that may not have been digitized individually.

To search for information, consider the following options:

Visit the National Register of Historic Places website: The National Park Service maintains a website that allows you to search for properties listed on the National Register. You can search by state, county, or keyword to find information about properties in your area. This website also provides information about how to nominate a property for listing on the National Register.

Contact your State Historic Preservation Office: Each state has a Historic Preservation Office that can provide information about properties listed on the National Register in your state. They may also be able to provide guidance on how to research your home's history and how to nominate it for listing on the National Register.

Check local historical society archives: Local historical societies often maintain archives of historical properties and may have information about homes listed on the National Register in your area. They may also have resources to help you research your home's history.

Remember, not all historic homes are listed on the National Register, so it's important to explore other resources as well.

Planning to visit your local library?

When it comes to researching your home's history, it's important to keep in mind that not all records are available in a digital format. While digital collections and online resources can be a great starting point for your research, there may be valuable information and resources that can only be found by venturing into physical.

Visiting a physical archive can offer a unique and immersive research experience that allows you to interact with primary sources firsthand. For example, you may be able to view original property records, maps, and architectural plans that are not available online. In addition, you may be able to consult with archivists and librarians who can offer guidance and insight into the available resources and research methods.

While it may require more effort and time to visit a physical archive, the potential payoff in terms of uncovering previously unknown information and gaining a deeper understanding of your home's history can be well worth it. Plus, the experience of conducting research in a physical archive can be rewarding and enjoyable in its own right, providing a glimpse into the history and culture of your local community.

Preparing for Your Visit to the Library

Before visiting the library, it's essential to identify the information you need to research. You should create a list of questions to guide your research, such as:

1) Who built the house?

2) Why was my house built here?

3) Who were the previous owners?

4) What changes have been made to the property over time?

5) What was the neighborhood like in the past?

Once you've identified your questions, you can then start to understand the library's resources and how to access them. It's worth noting that libraries can have different resources available, so you may need to call ahead to ensure they have the materials you need.

Conducting Your Research

Once you've gathered your questions and identified the library resources you need, it's time to conduct your research. It's helpful to keep a notebook or a digital document to document the information you find. You should also organize the information to make it easier to follow. You may find it useful to create a timeline of your home's history, noting important dates and events.


Other Tips for Researching Your Home's History

When it comes to researching the history of your home, it's important to remember that you don't have to do it alone. In fact, one of the best resources you can utilize are the librarians and archivists who work at these institutions. They are knowledgeable professionals who are trained to help you find the information you need.

If you're feeling overwhelmed or stuck in your research, don't be afraid to ask for help. The staff at libraries,  archives, and HouseNovel are here to assist you and are often more than happy to help you in your search for your home's history. They can provide valuable insights, suggest resources you may not have considered, and offer guidance on how to navigate complex databases and archives.

It's also a good idea to establish a relationship with the librarians or archivists you work with. Not only can they provide you with expert guidance, but they can also become a valuable resource for future research projects. Consider exchanging contact information or grabbing one of their business cards so you can easily reach out to them in case you have follow-up questions or think of additional information you'd like to explore.

Remember, we are all here to help you, and by working together, you can uncover the rich history of your home and community and preserve the history for generations to come.

Researching Home History

Researching the history of your home can truly be a fascinating and enriching experience. Not only can you learn about the architectural style and design of your home, but you can also discover the stories of the people who have lived there before you. By using the tips and resources outlined in this post, you can dive deeper into the past and uncover new insights about your home's history.

Whether you start with the digital collections of your local library or venture out to explore the archives in person, the journey of discovering your home's past is sure to be a fulfilling one. With a little bit of patience and determination, you can piece together the puzzle of your home's history and gain a greater appreciation for the place you call home.

So, what are you waiting for? Start your research journey today and see what fascinating discoveries you can make about the history of your home! With the help of dedicated librarians and archives professionals, as well as the wealth of resources available online and in person, the possibilities are endless. Happy researching!

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