How to research the history of your house or neighborhood

Are you interested in learning more about the history of your house or your neighborhood? This guide provides a quick introduction on how to use archival sources to learn more about the history of Baltimore houses, buildings, and neighborhoods. Don’t miss our companion resource on digital sources for local history!

Your House Has a History

Researching the history of your house or neighborhood can be an educational and entertaining activity for home-owners, students or any interested local historians. Building history research can included:

  • Finding information on the history of the neighborhood
  • Locating original plans and identifying an architect
  • Documenting changes to the building over time
  • Learning who lived in your house
  • Events that took place in your neighborhood

This guide is designed to provide a starting place for figuring out what questions to ask and where to find the answers. Some helpful resources require you to have a library card from the Enoch Pratt Free Library. If you are not a Baltimore resident, you can access many of the same databases through the Baltimore County Public Library, the DC Public Library, or through other public or university libraries. If you have questions or suggestions on how we can improve this guide, please get in touch!

Where to start?

If you’re starting a new local history research project, search engines like Google and resources like Wikipedia or Google Books are often a great place to start. Google Books covers a wide range of primary and secondary sources and you never know what you might turn up. Historic newspapers are another great place to start but require more experience to use most effectively. Anyone with a library card from the Enoch Pratt Free Library can access the a database of historic newspapers including the Baltimore Sun and the Afro-American.

Meeting people from the past

If you have a name of a resident, a property owner, or a business, you can find more information using historic directories or the range of public records, including immigration records, enlistment and veterans records, and census records, available through a commercial services like County and state level census data can also provide a broader perspective on the demographics of our region. Find digitized directories, census materials in our digital sources directory.

You can often find the names of prior owners and resident of your house by finding the prior deeds and tracing a chain of title. Learn more in our guide to deed research.

Picturing buildings and neighborhoods

Maps are often helpful for identifying when buildings and landscape features are built and when they disappear. They often also include place names, names of property owners, as well as information on transportation and infrastructure. Historic photographs can help you identify how a place has changed over time. Pictures are also a great way of getting anyone interested in learning more about local history. Find historic map collections and digital image databases in our digital sources directory.

Learning from other local historians

Sometimes another scholar or researcher has already written about your area of interested or a related area. Browse through these secondary sources to find more information or use the bibliographies to find even more.

Resources on Baltimore Architecture & History

Resources on Maryland Architecture & History

Bibliographies on Baltimore & Maryland History

Where can you ask for help?

Reference librarians and archivists at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and Maryland Historical Society assist people everyday with finding sources and answering questions related to local history and genealogy research. Online communities, including both email list-servs and Facebook groups are also helpful places to connect with other local historians and ask for help when you need it.

Additional Research Guides

Learning to Do Historical Research: A Primer for Environmental Historians and Others

A basic introduction to historical research for anyone and everyone who is interested in exploring the past. All of us do historical research all the time, but not everyone thinks very carefully about the best ways of finding information about the past and how it relates to the present. This resource created by Dr. William Cronon, former president of the American Historical Association, provides a survey of the essential stages of the research process and a survey of the different kinds of documents that can offer invaluable information and insights about the past.

Do History On Your Own: History Toolkit

This online resource shows how to tell a story about the past from the fragments that have survived and offers a toolkit of how-to essays that can help you learn to do your own historical research.

Revised October 27, 2014. More detailed links to online sources for maps, periodicals and other research have been moved to our new Digital Sources for Local History Research directory. We are in currently revising and expanding this research guide. If you have questions or suggestions, please get in touch.