Where to Do Genealogy Research in New York City
Whether you live here or you’re planning a research trip, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed trying to do genealogy research in New York City. There are archives, libraries, museums, museums with libraries in them, municipal record offices, courthouses, and more.
As a professional genealogist, I’ve learned how to navigate these repositories—and now I’m passing that knowledge on to you. That’s why I’ve put together this Guide to NYC Genealogy Research (in Person). That’s right—you won’t find online resources here. This is all about where to go and what to do when you get there. I’ve also included Pro Tips, little things I’ve picked up from my visits over the years. I’ve written before about how visiting a new repository or genealogy conference can be scary. I like to write these blog posts to help others feel more comfortable doing research for the first time.
Top 5 Places for Genealogy Research in New York City
These are the heavy hitters. The places that are worth your time. If you’re visiting New York City and you have limited time, make sure at least a couple of these are on your itinerary. I’ll cover the second-round picks in a future blog post.
New York City Municipal Archives
Location: 31 Chambers Street, New York, NY
Closest Subway Lines: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, A, C, R, W, J, Z (so, a lot)
What it’s Good For: Vital records. This is where you’ll find your NYC birth certificates, NYC death certificates, and NYC marriage certificates and marriage licenses for all five boroughs. (If you’re getting certificates for dual citizenship, you’ll want to head over to my other post about how to do that.) They also have NYC court records, tax records, and tons of other one-of-a-kind collections.
No photography of computers or microfilm machines! Trust me, they’ll yell at you.
Take advantage of the Archives’ free access to subscription sites like Ancestry.com.
You can also look up some vital certificates on their computers now—no microfilm necessary.
When to Go: They are open every other Saturday (check the schedule before you go), but you’ll have your pick of machines if you go on a weekday morning or around lunchtime.
New York Public Library
Location: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (the one with the lions out front), 476 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY
Closest Subway Lines: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, B, D, F, M, N, Q, R, W, S (in other words, most of them)
What it’s Good For: Tons of things: free access to subscription websites, old newspapers, old NYC phone books, published genealogies, old genealogical journals, and archival materials that used to be housed at the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society Library (RIP).
Head to the Milstein Division on the first floor. This is where you’ll find most of the genealogically-relevant materials.
Get a library card. If you don’t live in New York City, you can get a temporary card that will give you access to the library’s databases for a couple of months, even after you go home(!).
Ask the librarians for help. They’re awesome and can generally point you in the right direction. But also…
Do some research ahead of time and go in with some idea of what collections you’re looking for. That way, you can make the most of your time.
When to Go: Any day but Sunday, because they’re closed. I like Tuesdays and Wednesdays because the library stays open until 7:45pm on those days.
New York City Department of Health
Location: 125 Worth Street, New York, NY - do NOT listen to Google Maps and go to Queens!
Closest Subway Lines: 4, 5, 6, J, Z, but it’s also a short walk from the NYC Municipal Archives
What it’s Good For: Recent NYC birth certificates and death certificates. If your ancestor was born here after 1909 or died after 1948, their vital records will be here. The Department of Health gets a bad rap from genealogists (and, let’s be honest, a lot of other folks) because they only allow direct descendants and a handful of other family members to request birth and death records.
If you’re requesting an ancestor’s birth or death certificate, bring a photo ID and, if possible, documents that show your connection to the ancestor.
Prepare to be quizzed on the ancestor’s life details. I’ve heard stories of DoH officials asking folks to draw family trees charting their connections to one another. They’ve also asked for the names of an ancestor’s parents, maiden names, and Social Security numbers.
Give yourself plenty of time. You might have to wait in a long line.
When to Go: It’s always a zoo, but avoid going at the very end of the day.
Your Ancestors’ Cemeteries
Location: Possibly Manhattan, but more likely Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or all of the above
Closest Subway Lines: Uhhh, you’ll have to look into that
What it’s Good For: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a genealogical breakthrough by simply visiting somebody’s grave. If you’re Jewish, you’ll probably get your ancestor’s Hebrew name and their father’s name. No matter your ancestor’s religion, you can definitely see if they were buried in a family plot, get copies of burial records, and get leads on new family members.
Pull your ancestor’s death record from the New York City Municipal Archives or the Department of Health to confirm their burial location.
Call the cemetery ahead of time and really confirm the burial location.
Visit the cemetery office first, get a map, and clear directions to the plot.
Wear sunscreen or a hat, and good walking shoes. Most New York City cemeteries are pretty big, and somehow your person is always in the corner farthest from the entrance. Just one of those things.
When to Go: First thing in the morning is nice. I like to avoid the afternoon because some cemeteries have very little shade. You also don’t want to get locked in at the end of the day (this almost happened to me!).
Center for Jewish History
Location: 15 W. 16th Street, New York, NY
Closest Subway Lines: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, F, M, L, N, Q, R, W, and PATH trains
What it’s Good For: The CJH probably wouldn’t make most people’s lists, and those people would be wrong. In addition to having incredible resources on Jewish genealogy, the CJH is a Family History Center affiliate library. You can access paid genealogy websites for free. And my favorite, the CJH is a beautiful facility that has tons of volunteers who, generally speaking, really know their stuff. If you need some hand-holding on your research trip and you don’t want to hire me (I’m half-kidding), visit the friendly folks at the CJH. Even if you and your ancestors aren’t/weren’t Jewish.
Security is tight, so be prepared to take out your laptop, turn it on, and check your coat.
If you plan to view archival materials in the reading room, you’ll need to stow your belongings in a locker upstairs. It’s a tight squeeze if you have a large backpack or laptop, so check your larger pieces at the coat check downstairs.
The CJH has digitized a lot of its collections, so peruse their catalog and see if items are available online before you go.
When to Go: Monday through Thursday. The are closed or have limited hours Friday-Sunday.
Watch for future blog posts about where to do New York City genealogy research in-person. If you’re planning a trip or need some assistance with your research, feel free to contact me for a consultation.