Researching L.A. 101: Step-By-Step Instructions For Finding Historical Information About The Los Angeles Area

This past weekend, the Metro Transportation Library & Archive participated in the 6th Annual LA as Subject Archives Bazaar.

The annual event brings together more than 80 exhibitors showcasing their collections, answering questions, networking amongst each other, and attending educational workshops, panel discussions, documentary film screenings and more.

The exhibition area, held at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library, is part “Antiques Roadshow” and part show-and-tell for Southern California’s archivists, librarians, historians, private collectors and other collection managers.

The entire event is free and open to the public, so if you missed it last  year, be on the lookout for next year’s Archives Bazaar next October.

This year’s event featured more exhibitors, more attendees, and for the first time, a repeat of a program from the prior year.

Jennifer Allan Goldman, a curator at The Huntington Library, reprised her successful presentation from 2010 entitled “Researching 101: Out Of Your Jammies And Into The Archives!”

Her step-by-step review of sources for Los Angeles historical information is a great place to start when doing your own sleuthing about any of the myriad facets of our region.

Earlier this year, we wrote an in-depth approach to transportation research in our step-by-step guide to getting started, as well as where to find up-to-the-minute bibliographies for hot transportation topics.

Now we’d like to offer up some advice for researching Los Angeles history.  Even if you’re not working on a research project, these resources are a lot of fun to explore and help you sleep well at night in case you’re concerned about our historical and cultural legacy not being preserved!

So where does one begin?

Aggregated Databases

Large databases allow you to search many archives in one search.

The OCLC WorldCat catalog is the grand-daddy of them all — think of it as the library world’s “super catalog.”

Librarians and information professionals around the world can now inform you of which resources are in your community — or where in the world to find them.

Most libraries around the world use the OCLC international bibliographic database to share the records for items in their collections.  The database contains well over 750 million unique records, and grows rapidly every day.

This helps them download cataloging records, facilitates interlibrary loans, and now share information with the public about which titles are located in proximity to where they live!

Searching multiple catalogs at once is something unimaginable until recently, and some items can be directly viewed or downloaded without even traveling to the library which owns them.

WorldCat even lets you link to “Ask A Librarian” and other services at your own library.

You could easily kill an entire day playing in the WorldCat database, but this is just the beginning.

The Online Archive Of California (OAC) is a product of the California Digital Library.

OAC provides free public access to detailed descriptions of primary resource collections maintained by more than 200 contributing institutions throughout California.

Proposed public housing for Elysian Park, via Online Archive of California

 As California’s central repository for archival collection guides, the OAC now features more than 20,000 such guides and more than 220,000 digital images and documents.

We currently have a few collections described in the OAC, including The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission Records, the Asbury Rapid Transit System Records, the Jacqueline Bacharach Office Records collection, and the LACMTA transit videos collection.  We plan on adding many more collections from our archives to this great resource for finding historical information.

The OCLC ArchiveGrid is a new tool still in Beta testing.  It connects you with primary source material held in archives around the world.  Historical documents, personal papers, family histories and other items from across the globe are now at your fingertips.

Online Catalogs

 The University Of California’s Online Catalog (Melvyl), once a stand-alone database, has now been folded into OCLC Worldcat.

Melvyl is the discovery platform for the University Of California Libraries’ union catalog.  The UC Libraries have moved to WorldCat to facilitate the ability to search millions of items across the UC campuses.

The UC collections are an important part of the Hathi Trust Digital Library.  This partnership of major research institutions and libraries woks to ensure that the cultural record is perserved and accessible long into the future.  (“Hathi” is the Hindi word for elephant — thus one that “never forgets.”)

Locally, besides our public libraries’ traditional online catalogs, the Los Angeles Public Library’s digital library catalog and online photograph catalog as well as the  County of Los Angeles Public Library’s special branch collections (Black Resources Center, Chicano Resource Center, Asian Pacific Resource Center, and American Indian Resource Center) are also obviously important resources for regional history.

Furthermore, the Los Angeles Public Library offers up its “Electronic Neighborhood” as a unique, one-stop information resource for information on California and regional history topics such as the El Pueblo collection and Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, while the County of Los Angeles Public Library has 15 additional local history collections available online.

The County of Los Angeles Public Library’s Californiana Collection is yet another great resource for local history.  It includes California census schedules from 1850-1910, several 19th century newspapers and city directories, official city and county histories from throughout the state, and biographies and narratives of famous Californians over the course of the past 150 years.

Digital Collections

Local history researchers should be aware of Calisphere, the University of California’s free public gateway to more than 200,000 items, including photographs, documents, newspaper pages, political cartoons, works of art, diaries, transcribed oral histories, advertising and other unique cultural artifacts.

As a public service project of the California Digital Library, Calisphere leverages technology and innovation to support scholarship as well as K-12 education.

A quick search of Calisphere for “transportation” yields more than 5,000 images and more than 600 texts.

Among many other great university resources are the California State University, Dominguez Hills Digital Library and Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

Serious researchers should perform a search on the LA as Subject website‘s directory to find even more local collections that suit their needs.

The directory provides overviews for more than 230 local archives, libraries, museums, historical societies, and other cultural institutions throughout Southern California, along with a map showing where they are located.

Go Ahead, Explore!

If you don’t find what you’re looking for, visit your local library or contact them online for more information.  They are there to help you!