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Though we’re living in the digital age where we can do a tremendous amount of research online, sometimes we still need the library, and more importantly, the help of an actual person.
We recently spoke to Philip about his role at the library, and, as expected, he was full of helpful resources. You didn’t originally set out to be a librarian, so how did you become interested in library science? It’s that interesting hybrid of a public library and a research library that makes us unique, I would say. My role in the Milstein Division – and this is true for other librarians here – is primarily about reference. We also do a bit of outreach for different aspects of genealogical research and local and United States History.
We also get a lot of high school students who have a research project on topics like the Civil War or Reconstruction. We have half a million books pertaining to genealogy, local history, and United States History. As far as materials pertaining to building histories, what does the division have access to? From the late 1920s until the early 1940s, the library was really interested in capturing changing New York. It’s quite interesting that you help people researching United States and New York History yet you are from across the pond. I would say the city directory collection where we have original and digitized directories of New York. What does helping New Yorkers conduct research, especially about their families, mean to you? The great thing about libraries is that we give people a chance to keep their learning process going.
If you happen to be researching your family or interested in learning the history of a particular building in New York, then perhaps you’ve stopped by the reference desk at the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy of the New York Public Library and asked librarian Philip Sutton for help.
On a daily basis, he takes the journey with New Yorkers looking to learn more about their city and more often than not, to answer deeply personal questions about their families.
I kind of wanted a little more out of it and being a reference librarian is great because I have the chance to help people. I graduated in 2007 with my bachelors from Goldsmiths, an art school in London, and I didn’t know what to do. We have research collections that attract a broad sweep of people doing research, from those who are just beginning and interested in researching their family history, to high school students, right up through published scholars and academics.
A lot of our patrons are interested in researching their family history, whether they’re beginners or people who are working as genealogists. I was talking with a colleague who started around the same time as I did about how it takes two to three years to really get to know the collection and how it plays out with other archives in New York.


There is this kind of tried-and-trusted way of starting genealogy research, which is to speak to your family and gather all the information you can, go through any records you can find on marriage or immigration, and then start writing things down. They want to know how to begin, so we’ll help them navigate keyword searches, archives, and databases. Curate is the word we use today, and we gather the databases and make people aware of them.
There’s the materials we have in hand, as well those elsewhere in New York, for instance at the City Register’s office, the Department of Buildings, and the Municipal Archives.
The Map Division has property and real estate maps, especially from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
I was also driven by this idea of when you finish your degree, at the end of the research thing, how can you continue to carry it on?
We also serve a lot of people doing local history research as well as United States research. You start building a family tree and then come to the library to look at census and vital records. We have access to tens and tens of databases including subscription services that you can access in the library for free. They have fire insurance maps from earlier in that period, which are also very useful and really describe nicely the New York environment. A lot of tenement buildings were coming down and various projects were going up, so the library wanted to record the changing face of New York.
I definitely feel a connection to New York because I work with city items every day and because I work in genealogy and help patrons with their research. There’s a section that describes various institutions including churches, police stations, government offices, libraries and hospitals. Originally from London, Philip has a particular expertise in helping people conduct research on building history in New York. We give instruction on how to access these materials, and then it’s kind of on from there. We have a lot of people who come in with a million different questions pertaining to a building, which is why we do instruction and blog posts. They’re a precursor to the phone book and fantastic with straight indexes with cross streets. We have the Lloyd Acker Real Estate Photographs collection, which has a lot of real estate photos from the 1940s through 1970s. He writes blog posts on the topic for the library and teaches a bi-monthly course aptly titled, “Who Lives in a House Like This? The nature of the reference questions gets quite complex because people are about to get into a research process that is very detailed, and there are a lot of options.
On top of that, we have non-digitized collections of microfilm of New York, city directories, probate records, property deeds, vital records, and indexes.


There are scrapbooks that are very accessible on microfilm that are arranged by street names. Somebody emailed that they believed somebody was murdered and there was a ghost in the building. Then you have the residential section, which has the names of individuals, addresses, business addresses, professions, and even lists of deaths.
How to Research the History of Your New York City Home,” during which he instructs New Yorkers how to get started with their research. I do work on immigration and naturalization and passenger lists and also teach a class on building research. There are digitized historical newspapers, which are great for real estate news and stories based around a specific address or buildings. We also have a large collection of auction pamphlets. Additionally, we have a lot of non-digitized real estate photos that we are hoping to digitize shortly.
They had spoken to a medium who said it was the ghost of a prostitute and the building used to be a brothel. People can’t find a record and they need help searching alternative indexes or to know where they can find it. The Milstein Division holds the print collections, and most of the manuscript collections and the rest of the manuscripts are in the Archives and Manuscripts Division.
We also have local history materials for researching any of the boroughs or neighborhoods and biographical indexes. They came to the reference desk and wanted to know all about this brothel and the person who was murdered. A lot of people want to see an old photograph of their building for whatever reason – their great-great grandfather lived there or it’s landmarked and they need to do some work on it and want to know what it looked like. Every now and then this happens to my colleagues and me, and maybe this is because we work in genealogy, but people are really, really grateful that we help.
The person who sent in the question decided they were going to believe the medium, but what can you do. They put them together usually between May and July of a specific year because May Day was moving day in New York.
So they would wait for everyone to move and then they would go out and canvass for the information.




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