Fifty Fabulous Online Library Historical Collections
By Ana Brazil
April 9, 2021

In honor of National Library Week, the Paper Lantern Writers are shining a spotlight on fifty fabulous digital library collections. Fasten your seatbelt as we travel America from coast to coast and century to century.

All library and collection descriptions come directly from the library website. And if you’ve got any online library collections to recommend, we’d love to hear about them in our comments section.

Digital Public Library of America

A 1910 photograph of Elsie and Lela Scott, children of Exodusters John and Julia Scott, who settled in Stafford County, Kansas. via Digital Public Library of America

“Empowers people to learn, grow, and contribute to a diverse and better-functioning society by maximizing access to our shared history, culture, and knowledge.”

  • The Colonies: Motivations and Realities – The English colonists who settled in North America were motivated to leave Europe for a variety of reasons.
  • Exodusters: African American Migration to the Great Plains – When Reconstruction ended in 1877, southern whites used violence, economic exploitation, discriminatory laws called Black Codes, and political disenfranchisement to subjugate African Americans and undo their gains during Reconstruction.
  • Immigration through Angel Island – Angel Island Immigration Station was the entryway to America for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mainly from Asian countries, during its operation from 1910 to 1940.
  • Settlement Houses in the Progressive Era – Between the 1880s and 1920s, hundreds of settlement houses were established in American cities in response to an influx of European immigrants as well as the urban poverty brought about by industrialization and exploitative labor practices.
  • Truth, Justice, and the Birth of the Superhero Comic Book – Sometimes referred to as the “golden age of comic books,” the years from the late 1930s through the early 1950s marked a period of creativity and innovation in the medium.


Newberry Library

via The Newberry Library

“The collection—some 1.6 million books, 600,000 maps, and 5 million manuscript pages—is a portal to more than six centuries of human history, from the Middle Ages to the present…Since its founding in 1887, the Newberry has remained dedicated to deepening our collective understanding of ourselves and the world around us.”

  • Chicago and the Midwest – Extensive research materials relating to the history of Chicago and the Midwest, including their settlement, growth, politics, and eclectic inhabitants.
  • Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection – Widely regarded as the largest public collection of postcards and related materials in the United States. When received at the Newberry Library it was estimated at 2.5 million items, and well over a half-million unique postcard images.
  • Helen Morrison Photographs of Kentucky African Americans – Beginning in 1935, Morrison traveled to the Inner Bluegrass region near Lexington, Kentucky, where she photographed the residents of two small African-American communities, Zion Hill and Sugar Hill. Morrison’s photographs chart the daily lives of individuals in these communities, picturing their work, domestic rituals, and social life.
  • Pullman Car Drawings – Images of  Pullman car drawings, ca. 1870-1969, with the bulk of the drawings created for heavyweight and lightweight cars, ca. 1906-1969.
  • World War I Sheet Music – The Driscoll Collection of American Sheet Music…is one of the largest and most representative collections of its kind.


Berkeley Library, University of California

Camp at Fort Mason. via Berkeley Library, University of California.

“The digital materials you find here — images, text, audio, and video — enrich and support the work of Berkeley’s faculty, researchers, students, and staff.”


New York Public Library

The Bronx via The New York Public Library

“An essential provider of free books, information, ideas, and education for all New Yorkers for more than 125 years. Founded in 1895, NYPL is the nation’s largest public library system.”

  • Farm Security Administration Photographs – Approximately 40,000 photographs taken during the 1930s and 1940s by Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee, among others.
  • Maps of North America – Maps of North America and the Caribbean. It includes maps of the continent, as well as regions, countries, states, provinces, and cities, showing basic topographical features and/or, in some cases, topical themes. Maps date from the 17th century through the present day.
  • New York City Directories – New York City directories record the names and addresses of city residents, businesses, churches, schools, police stations, courts, and other government offices, as well as the names of individuals associated with those institutions. They also feature images, including maps, illustrations of buildings, and advertisements.
  • Photographic views of New York City, 1870’s-1970’s – Approximately 1,700 New York City photographs, primarily of exterior building views and neighborhood scenes, from 1887-1986, arranged by borough and street, with a section of topical subjects augmenting the geographical portions of the collection.
  • Yiddish Theater  – Includes hundreds of manuscripts, photographs, oral histories, posters, playbills, books, periodicals, and sheet music, comprising one of the largest Yiddish theater collections in the world. 567 searchable items.


Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

via the Huntington Library

“A collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public.”

  • Henry David Thoreau’s Walden – The bulk of the seven versions of Walden (HM 924), which comprise over 1200 pages. The eighth and final version, which Thoreau sent to the printer, is no longer extant, but it is represented in the Huntington’s collection by the page proofs for the book (HM 925), marked for correction both at the printing house and by Thoreau.
  • Jay T. Last Collection of Graphic Arts and Social History – More than 200,000 prints, posters, and ephemera of mostly American origin, and contains works by more than five hundred commercial lithographic companies.
  • Jack London Photographs and Negatives – Approximately 12,000 images, primarily taken by London himself between 1902 and 1916, document the poor in the City of London, the Russo-Japanese War, the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, London’s 18-month cruise through the South Pacific, a shipboard journey around Cape Horn, the Mexican Revolution, and London’s ranch in California’s Sonoma Valley.
  • Mormonism and the West – PDFs generated from reproductions of original letters, diaries, journals, reminiscences and other records lent to The Huntington during the 1940s and 1950s by descendants of pioneering Mormon families, through the assistance of Mormon historian Juanita Brooks, as well as copies acquired from institutions such as Brigham Young University.
  • Pacific Rim – Chinese American and Japanese American history in Southern California and beyond. Subject areas include immigration history, early Los Angeles Chinatown communities, early Japanese American flower growers and florists, Japanese American incarceration during World War II, and family history.


Denver Public Library

via The Denver Public Library

“Online collection contains a selection of photographs, maps, broadsides, architectural drawings and other documents from the collections of the Western History and Genealogy Department and the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, chronicling the people, places, and events that shaped the settlement and growth of the Western United States.” Thanks to Mari Christie for the suggestion!

The Library Company of Philadelphia

via The Library Company

“America’s first successful lending library and oldest cultural institution. It was founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin as a subscription library supported by its shareholders, as it is to this day.” The collection focuses on American society and culture from the 17th through the 19th centuries.

  • McAllister Comic Valentines – In both the United States and England, the market for comic valentines rivaled that for sentimental valentines, with their sales numbers about equal in the 1840s and 1850s.
  • Philip Frey & Co.’s Centennial Exhibition Souvenir Viewbook – Souvenir viewbook containing 12 prints connected by accordion folds and depicting Centennial Exhibition buildings.
  • Silhouettes – Collection of over 1,000 silhouettes, including the portrait of African American silhouettist Moses Williams, and hundreds stamped Peale Museum, ca. 1800s-ca. 1830s.
  • Stereographs – Nearly 3,000 stereographs published and distributed in or of Philadelphia.
  • World War One – Materials relating to the conflict and its immediate aftermath. The photographs, postcards and scrapbooks in this collection are primarily from the Philadelphia region and include views of the Philadelphia Navy Yard and patriotic parades and rallies held around the city.


Sonoma County [California] Library

California Grand Prize auto race, Santa Rosa, May 9, 1909. via Sonoma County Library

“Digital Collections make available a variety of digitized historical materials and other resources from our Special Collections locations (History & Genealogy Library, Petaluma History Room and Sonoma County Wine Library and the Sonoma County Library Archives) and from a number of partner organizations.” Thanks to Lynn Downey for the suggestion!


The Morgan Library and Museum

“In 1924 J. P. Morgan, Jr. gave his father’s extraordinary library to the public….Pierpont Morgan…bought on an astonishing scale, collecting art objects in virtually every medium, including the rare books, manuscripts, drawings, prints, and ancient artifacts that are the core of The Morgan Library & Museum’s holdings.”

  • Digital Facsimiles – Of entire, selected manuscripts.
  • Drawings – All the major European schools are represented in the collection, with particular strengths in Italian, French, British, Dutch, Flemish, and German masters. The collection also includes drawings by American artists as well as a growing number of modern and contemporary works on paper.
  • Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts – The collection spans some ten centuries of Western illumination, and contains manuscripts from all the major schools, including some of the great masterpieces of medieval manuscript art.
  • Music Manuscripts – Works by J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Fauré, Haydn, Liszt, Mahler, Massenet, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Puccini, Schubert, and Schumann, among many others, can be viewed on these pages.
  • Rembrandt Prints – Almost 500 images from the Morgan’s exceptional collection of Rembrandt etchings


Library of Congress

via The Library of Congress

“The research library that officially serves the United States Congress and is the de facto national library of the United States.” (Wikipedia)

  • An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490 to 1920 – “Over two hundred social dance manuals…The list begins with a rare late fifteenth-century source, Les basses danses de Marguerite d’Autriche (c.1490) and ends with Ella Gardner’s 1929 Public dance halls, their regulation and place in the recreation of adolescents.”
  • Carrie Chapman Catt Papers – The papers of suffragist, political strategist, and pacifist Carrie Lane Chapman Catt (1859-1947) span the years 1848-1950, with the bulk of the material dating from 1890 to 1920.
  • Curtis (Edward S.) Collection – More than 2,400 silver-gelatin, first generation photographic prints–some of which are sepia-toned–made from Curtis’s original glass negatives… Images from each of the geo-cultural regions documented in The North American Indian are represented in the collection: the Pacific Northwest, New Southwest, Great Basin, Great Plains, Plateau Region, California, and Alaska.
  • George Washington Papers – The papers of army officer and first U.S. president George Washington (1732-1799) held in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress constitute the largest collection of original Washington papers in the world.
  • Panoramic Photographs – Approximately four thousand images featuring American cityscapes, landscapes, and group portraits. The images date from 1851 to 1991 and depict scenes in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. More than twenty foreign countries and a few U.S. territories are also represented.

Ana Brazil

Written by Ana Brazil

Ana Brazil writes historical crime fiction celebrating bodacious American heroines. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Ana’s latest historical mystery is THE RED-HOT BLUES CHANTEUSE, which features murder, mayhem, and music in 1919 San Francisco. Her award-winning historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is set in Gilded Age New Orleans.

View Ana’s PLW Profile

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