A guide to New York City photo archives

Zach van Schouwen, August 18 2009

In the course of developing my rephotography blog, I've often had the problem of finding old photos of a specific location. This is not a trivial task. Here I'm listing all of the collections that I've encountered in my searches. If you have any additions, please send them to zachvs, care of gmail.com.

New York Public Library, Digital Gallery. The best starting point. Vast collections, spanning all five boroughs, taken by in-house photographers or culled from various sources. Also includes old real estate atlases, plates from Valentine's Manual (drawings and etchings), and other good stuff.
Online: Yes. Nearly all photos have an address or intersection in their metadata.

New York Public Library collections. Useful, but daunting. Many items are not available to the public, or are being digitalized into the online gallery.
Online: Searchable by collection, but not by image.

Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. Although far from comprehensive, there are many useful photos of Brooklyn (and limited numbers of the other boroughs). Includes the Brooklyn Daily Eagle photo archive.
Online: Yes. Integrated with the rest of the catalog. Choose "Photograph" as a media type to narrow it down.

New York Historical Society collections. The NYHS holds many, many photos. However, going through them requires an in-person visit -- if you can even locate what you want.
Online: Finding Aids are available. Use the link at the top to search through all of them, although this is a scattershot approach. Actual photos are not online.

Municipal Archives tax photos. Every building in the city was photographed from 1939-42. All these photos are available on microfilm at the reading room, at the Surrogate's Court building on Chambers St. Some are missing or damaged; some rolls of microfilm were allowed to degrade. The photos were reshot in the early 1980s (in color); these have been digitized and can be viewed on the Luna database, accessible from computers in the same building.
Online: No.

Municipal Archives collections. "2 million plus" photographs -- very few of which you can look at. Photographs of criminals, health department, bridges, mayoral events, WPA NYC guide photos, Borough President collections, ports and trade, sanitation, public charities. Some photos are available in the reference room, supposedly -- I doubt it, given my experience with the reference room. Others are in Luna, accessible on the computers there. Some are microfilmed.
Online: A few. Most are probably not accessible at all.

LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at CUNY. These include the NYC Housing Authority archives, which include photos of housing projects complete and under construction, pre-demolition photos, and documentation of various slum areas, some of which survive. Mayoral and city council archives here include some incindental street scenes as well.
Online: Yes. Collections can only be searched individually.

Museum of the City of New York. "Over half a million" photos. Wide assortment.
Online: Partially. The Byron Collection is online and searchable, and contains many good photos. Offline collections sound promising; research is currently closed until Spring 2010 for some reason.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. A wide variety of photos, including photographs of all Historical American Buildings Survey landmarks.
Online: Mostly. Some records not digitized, inclding the LOOK collection (also available at MCNY).

LIFE Archive on Google Images. Still being digitized. Includes a small number of high-quality city photos.
Online: Yes.

Tenement Museum. "Approximately 1,000 photos" of 97 Orchard Street, plus some of surrounding areas, Lower East Side housing conditions, street scenes, etc.
Online: No.

University Settlement. "A limited photo archive", presumably with photos of settlement and neighborhood. By appointment only.
Online: No.

Brooklyn Pix. Online collection of various photos, some overlap with others. Large sizes watermarked.
Online: Yes.

Shorpy. Online photo archive, with many good city shots, most of which are of New York street scenes and aerials.
Online: Yes.