On one of Philadelphia’s many historical streets, stands a typical Federal period building from the 1820’s. Inside is a collection of over 21 million historical documents, maps and images waiting to be discovered. This is the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, HSP.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s tagline is “Philadelphia’s Library of American History”, but you will find records from the entire state of Pennsylvania as well as some things from the adjoining states of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and New York. Be aware that you will want to stay an entire day once you start going through the collection. It is one of the most extensive genealogical collections found along the east coast.
Like all archives, everything here is to be used onsite and can not leave the building. The HSP online catalogs detail their holdings and they’ve written a fantastic summary on their website for genealogists here. Tip: you can access the entire catalog at home and save a list of the resources with call numbers to print out. The onsite computer catalog is incredibly slow so doing it home is more efficient. Go to the “Discover (Online Catalog)’, type in the search bar top left, and then next to the resource you want in the list click ‘Add to Book Bag’. You will then find your items under the little suitcase in the upper right. Click on it to get a list with call numbers in PDF form. You can also save this to your mobile device.
When you arrive, you will get a 10 minute overview of the rules and policies of HSP. You will need to sign the policies and register and show identification. There are lockers to secure everything but what you need for research, and they will go through all your papers when you leave. The bathrooms are secured with a keycard which you will request at the front desk. You can take photos or scans of any of the resources using the HSP paper photo strip in the photo. The staff will explain the how and why of the process. Overall, the atmosphere is one of dead silence and it is rare to anyone speak at all.
Researchers have access to the first floor and its divided into four areas with materials. The room behind the check-in desk houses the onsite catalog and the Microfilm Room. The reference librarian is here for questions. To the right is the Reading Room with an area for the Restricted Section and two adjoining rooms, The Pennsylvania Room and Family History Room.
The Family History room contains bound genealogies done by family historians and professional genealogists and vary according to age, style and level of detail. It is amazing to see so many genealogies all in one place! Everything here is listed in the Discover (Online Catalog) but it is still fun to walk through the shelves and pull down various surnames and see what’s inside.
The family genealogies spill out into the adjoining Pennsylvania Room. The Pennsylvania Room contains the church records and local histories for each county in Pennsylvania, in alphabetical order by county. There are also PA state history resources and indexes. Anything you want to read or photograph you can do in the open area of the Reading Room. Keep in mind the photography policy of no flash and to use the paper slip with the HSP logo and copyright information. Much of the collection of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania is housed in the Pennsylvania Room and you will find their seal as you open the books. See my article on GSP for more information.
The last area holding genealogical resources is the Closed Stacks and to access those resources you will fill out a pull slip and turn it into the reference librarian in the Restricted Section. You will need to select a numbered seat in the fenced-in area and they will bring the materials to you. When you finished with them, you return them to the librarian. Items pulled from the Closed Stacks can be in any condition. I once went through a family scrapbook that was literally flaking apart as I turned the pages. Sometimes, they will bring you photocopies of items because the originals are that delicate. It can take up to 15 minutes to receive materials depending on how busy they are. You will return them to the librarian seated in the front when you finished.
The Historical Society of Philadelphia also runs history-themed events, including genealogy courses, year round. If you join as a Friend of HSP, you get unlimited access to the site and invites to special events through out the year. This March the Friends Event includes access to their map collection and a review of what military records they have.
HSP is located at 1300 Locust Street in Philadelphia, easily accessible by public transportation. Two small parking lots are less than a half block from the building, and rates are about $25 for the day. Metered parking is hard to get and maxes at 2 hours. There is a small kitchen with microwave if you want to bring your lunch or a snack and eat onsite. Many restaurants and coffee shops abound in the busy neighborhood around the site. Check the Historical Society of Pennsylvania website for full information including operating hours at hsp.org.
HSP has been called the motherlode of genealogy and it is that because of the work of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania for 100 years. I’m thankful for both organizations and the work they’ve done to preserve each of our family’s past.