Family Trails: A Treasure in the City

By Valerie LaRobardier

Wherever your ancestors may have lived, have you looked for them on Fifth Avenue?

There are a handful of spots that genealogists consider meccas for research — the Library of Congress; the Family History Library in Salt Lake City; the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana — and the Highlands happens to be about 50 miles from one of them, the New York Public Library at 476 Fifth Ave. That’s a three-block walk due west from Grand Central Station, so there is no need to drive or let the snow keep you away.

Once inside, you’ll make a beeline to the genealogy reading room on the first floor, which is the epicenter of the library’s Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy. You will need a library card to request materials; it’s available to any New York state resident. Create an account at nypl.org to apply.

A view of the Milstein genealogy room at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street (NYPL)

Do your homework before you visit to maximize results; if something is confusing you can ask the librarian once you get there (or before by email or chat). There is so much to consider that Milstein can be overwhelming and intimidating if you are not a seasoned researcher. The library has created a video (below) that I found to be a powerful incentive to explore Milstein.

Many of NYPL’s resources for Dutchess and Putnam counties are available locally, but not all in one place, such as at Milstein. In addition, local families came from other places and then moved to other places, and there are many great resources at Milstein for immigrant research.

When visiting, cast a wider net than the published genealogies. For example, the Ferris family papers, compiled between 1865 and 1967, contain material about many families from Dutchess and Putnam. Milstein also has the ledger of Dr. Elias Cornelius (1758-1823), who practiced in Yorktown and Somers but had many patients from southern Dutchess County (later Putnam). Using the microfilm printer, you can email PDF copies to yourself and view or print from home at your leisure.

An example of an archival record discovered at nypl.org

With an account at nypl.org, you can create lists of books that you come across that might be helpful or useful for a quick look-up, then request them before your visit. Items stored offsite have a button on their catalog entry to place them on hold, which must be done at least two days in advance. Items located in the Milstein room can also be reserved. Why spend valuable time filling out request slips and waiting for the books to come up from the stacks under Bryant Park?

Although you can’t eat or drink in Milstein, I step into the hallway for a quick energy bar and drink — no need to pack up my laptop and coat or lose my prime seat. I usually try for an end seat near the shelves I may need to go back and forth to. Otherwise I go for an end seat close to the door and reference desk — but not too close. You don’t want to listen to every other person describing his or her problems to the librarian.

Don’t overlook the microfilm (which is nearby) and archival (third floor) collections. For the archives, you need to make an appointment and check your coat and bags. Many of the library’s manuscript collections have finding aids so you can limit your search to specific boxes or folders.

If you’re making a day of it and the weather is nice, you will find ample seating for lunch on the library terrace and at Bryant Park, along with an assortment of food trucks, concession stands and other eateries. The park also has free WiFi.

Once you have visited this amazing resource, you will immediately make plans to return.

LaRobardier is a professional genealogist and president of the Dutchess County Genealogical Society. Questions? Email genealogy@highlandscurrent.com.