Elizabeth Call on Researching Your House


I simply don’t know what I’d do without the Brooklyn Historical Society. I credit most of my Brooklyn knowledge to its wonderful collections, which are invaluable to anyone looking to research a house’s history. If you fall into that camp (and since you’re reading this I assume you do), head on over to the BHS library on the corner of Pierrepont & Clinton Streets and spend an afternoon in one of the most stunning interiors in all of Brooklyn. While there, you’ll probably encounter Elizabeth Call, Special Collections Librarian.

Since the Wooden House Projects gets so many questions about how to research your house, I thought I’d spend some time with Liz getting her take on the collections that would be most interesting to our readers.

Liz-employee-IDWhat is your title at the Brooklyn Historical Society? Can you tell us about your role?

My current title here at the Brooklyn Historical Society is Special Collections Librarian. I am responsible for managing the library’s printed collection such as books, both rare and new, newspapers, and maps. I am also head of reference and public services, which involves among many things managing the reading room, managing reference interns, and organizing weekend library workshops.

People must be coming in constantly to research their houses. Where do you normally advise them to start?

Next to genealogy, building/house research is our most popularly researched topic. Since people are usually at different points at their research when they come into our library, we spend a few minutes discussing what they know and what they want to know so that we can tailor what relevant sources they can use during their time here. For example for individuals who come in who are just starting out I usually start them off with our fabulous atlas collection, which consists primarily of fire insurance maps. Fire insurance maps show block by block detail of an area at a particular time. The bulk of our collection of atlases ranges in years from 1855 to 1929. For more details about that collection as well as an inventory you can visit our site here. These can help narrow the date range of when a building was built. Then we refer people to our Brooklyn Land Conveyances collection, which consist of abstract of land deeds that document land ownership and transfer for most blocks in Brooklyn from roughly 1699 to 1896.


A clip from a typical fire insurance map, showing the presence of houses and building materials in select years 

Do you have a favorite collection at the Brooklyn Historical Society?

That changes pretty frequently. As I continue to learn about the collections here I am always revising my response! As someone who really focused on 19th Century American history I have a special fondness for the Civil War Relief Association records (ARC.245), which includes the records of the Women’s Relief Association, together with the group’s male counterpart, the War Fund Committee, were formed to support the efforts of the U.S. Sanitary Commission locally. During the Civil War all of the major U.S. cities held Sanitary Fairs in order to help support the war effort. Originally Brooklyn was going to tag along with Manhattan’s fair, but when that city’s planning committee decided to change the date of the fair, Brooklyn’s fair planners decided to break from them and hold a Sanitary Fair in their own city. For those interested in the development of Brooklyn pre-consolidation this is a really rich moment to look into as it helps really illustrate how Brooklyn was a powerful and influential force in the development of this country.

However I do not want the folks reading this think that we only have 19th Century collections, we also have many amazing 20th Century collections that also provide rich insight into how major national events played out in Brooklyn. One great example of this is the Arnie Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection (ARC.002). This collection consists of the files kept by Arnie Goldwag (1938-2008), who held many positions in the Brooklyn contingent of the national organization, CORE. Founded in Chicago in 1942, CORE was centered on the principles of interracial, nonviolent direct action. Local chapters that affiliated with national CORE had a great deal of autonomy of action. Within this structure, Brooklyn CORE emerged in the early 1960s as one of the most radical CORE chapters, focusing on the living conditions of poor African-Americans in Bedford-Stuyvesant and employing increasingly aggressive confrontational tactics. It was during this surging radical activism in Brooklyn CORE that Goldwag was a central figure in the chapter and in its many civil rights actions. Indeed, Goldwag was a principal creator of one of Brooklyn CORE’s most controversial actions, the Stall-In at the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair. This action, which called for the deliberate blockage of automobile traffic headed to the Fair in order to call attention to discrimination against African-Americans, led to the suspension of the chapter by CORE.

These are just two examples of what our library and archives hold. Please explore more by searching our online catalogs!

If a homeowner wants to access your collection, can he/she visit anytime, or do you have specific hours? Any special rules or procedures that must be followed?

The library is open to all researchers on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m. As with most special collections there are some rules, which serve to protect the irreplaceable materials we provide access to: no pens, no gum chewing, bags need to be put in a particular area, a registration form needs to be filled out. Laptops are allowed as is photography (no flash) of the materials for reference purposes. Also as the room is quite chilly we recommend visitors to come armed with a sweater or two.

For complete details about visiting please view our website.

Have you found that certain periods in Brooklyn history are easier to research than others?

For doing building research using our collections, yes. The bulk of our atlases only go up until 1929 and the abstracts of land conveyances only document land ownership up until 1896.

What have you found to be most shocking, surprising or challenging about the process of researching houses in Brooklyn?

One big turning point for me personally is really understanding how to read the abstracts of land conveyances. I am a little embarrassed this admit, but it took some time to realize that the only way to really be able read them was by understanding how many feet in from a street (to be able to determine which you would have to look at the abstracts and then consult the atlases) the property I was researching. Understanding that was a game-changer!


A typical land conveyance record shows the transfer of property from year to year 

The Wooden House Project team attended the fantastic Research Your House Workshop that you led at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Do you plan to give another of these soon? If so, do you have a date set?

We try and offer the house research workshop a few times a year. Currently we do not have a date set for the next one but be on the lookout for one in the Fall. You can look at our calendar of events but please consider joining our mailing list, so that you can receive emails about all of our upcoming events as well as receive “Photo of the Week” and “Map of the Month”!

Want to know more? Come on by, there are always librarians on desk ready to help you with your reference questions and get you started with your research!