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House History: A Guide to Uncovering the Stories of Local Buildings and Properties

This guide provides research strategies to discover the history of a particular building or property, including architecture, location, ownership, and historical context.


Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. "Painted Ladies" row of Victorian houses located at 710 to 720 Steiner Street, across from Alamo Square Park, San Francisco, California. 2012. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Investigating the history of your house is a great way to learn about the history of the place where you live. This guide can help you find the documents and resources that will enable you to know more about your own home, other houses in your neighborhood, or different types of buildings across your local community. A wide variety of primary sources—from deeds to directories, manuscripts to maps, and photographs to floor plans—as well as secondary sources that pull together context, are available to help you reconstruct a building’s past. Perhaps you’d like to identify the people who built, owned, and lived in a house before you. Maybe you’d like a glimpse of how they used it, or what it meant to them. You can also learn about the architecture of houses, or your house in particular: from prevailing forms and styles of the day, to what changes or additions may have been made over time. Each house’s story is unique.

House history research has much in common with genealogy, or family history, research. Like families, in fact, houses and buildings tell many stories, depending on where you look. To research the history of a building or property, one good way to start is to first make note of what you already know about it. How do these pieces of evidence add up? Next, make a list of the questions you’d like to ask, and to answer. You may prefer to begin with the building itself, or you may wish to start with research on the people who lived there. Do remember that these paths of inquiry will intersect, because people created and built a physical entity—a building, house, or landscape—and that physical entity changed through human use and modification over time.

House History at the Library of Congress, and at Local Institutions

When it comes to researching the history of your house, there is local as a subject, and then there is local as a location. The Library of Congress, though a national institution, does hold a great many materials about local places in our collections. You can find states, counties, cities, towns, villages, and even some specific buildings represented in our photograph and map divisions. The Library also holds one of the largest collections in the world of published local history books, as listed in our online catalog. Through our digitized online collections and electronic databases, you can access still other sources about very specific places; one such example is Chronicling America, an expansive and growing collection of digitized historical newspapers from across the United States. Using these collections can be of great help to you in researching the history of your house.

Keep in mind, however, that local institutions, such as state or county archives, courts or clerks’ offices, or local and regional libraries and historical societies, have a mission to collect and preserve records of that specific place. As a result, local institutions will often have deeper and more extensive collections specific to their own locations. In addition, the kinds of materials most often referred to as records, such as deeds, building permits, and tax assessments, are found at the local level. House history research will almost certainly bring you to multiple repositories.

General Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.