May 1, 2023

Researching Your Building and Neighborhood: Resources at the California Historical Society

The California Historical Society’s (CHS) research library and archive contain extensive collections of rare books, manuscripts, newspapers, ephemera, maps, and photographs documenting the history of California and its peoples. Many resources in our holdings may be helpful for people researching buildings and neighborhoods located in California. Read on to learn more about the CHS collections and directories, and additional resources that can be of help to those researching the built and natural environment within California.

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Researching Your Building and Neighborhood: Resources at the California Historical Society

Researching Your Building and Neighborhood:
Resources at the 
California Historical Society 


Thinking about the building…
Where is it? When was it built? What did it look like? How has it been modified over time? How has the neighborhood changed?


Thinking about the people associated with it…
Who built it? Who owned it? Who lived there? Who were the neighbors?
Was this a commercial property? Who worked there? What kind of business was it? 


Thinking about the neighborhood…
Are there any maps or photographs of it through the decades? 

18th Street above Castro Street, Twin Peaks, ca. 1890
Photographer unknown, 18th Street above Castro Street, Twin Peaks, ca. 1890. California Historical Society, San Francisco Streets Photograph Collection (CHS2010.203)


Our collection of half a million photographs includes many streetscapes of San Francisco. Often, researchers get lucky and find their house right away—but not all houses or blocks were photographed, and even if they were, not all of those photographs have been saved. So what do you do next? Sometimes you’ll find a photograph of the neighborhood. Sometimes your house might show up in a photo of an “important” building, such as a church or school, that happens to be next door or down the block. If your house is near a corner, perhaps there’s a photograph filed under the name of the cross street.



Map of Bodie Mining District, Mono Co., Cal
Grafton Tyler Brown & Co. Lithographers, Map of Bodie Mining District, Mono County, California, ca. 1865. California Historical Society (Map 436)


The California Historical Society map collection includes early mining, railroad, and irrigation maps spanning the counties in California, as well as San Francisco Sanborn fire insurance maps that show the footprints of structures on a lot as well as the number of stories. Most of the Sanborn maps have been digitized and are available online through the Library of Congress website. 



Whaley House, San Diego, 1960.
Jack E. Boucher, Whaley House, San Diego, 1960. California Historical Society, Historic American Buildings Survey Records (MS 3980)


Manuscript and ephemera collections may contain information on neighborhoods and local housing advocacy groups and preservation efforts. For example, the Mike Miller papers contain primary source materials from Miller’s career as a community organizer, including his work for Mission Coalition Organization (MCO), La Guardia Tenants’ Association (LGTA), and housing organizations. The Historic American Buildings Survey collection includes photographs and descriptions of recognized historic buildings and locations, and both the San Francisco Ephemera Collection and California Ephemera Collection hold materials on local community groups and organizations, such as the Ping Yuen Housing Project, Pacific Heights Neighborhood Council, and Eureka-Noe Valley Concerned Citizens.   



  • City directories. Published annually, city directories are very helpful for locating where an individual lived. They also contain businesses and organizations in the back of the directory, listed by the name and type of the business. If you have someone’s name or the name of a business, this is a good place to start looking. Our collection includes directories from the 1860s to the 1980s. 
  • Reverse directories. These are lists of people who had telephones, and they are organized by address rather than alphabetically. If you know an address and want to find who lived or worked there, reverse directories can be very useful. CHS reverse directories start in the 1920s and continue off and on into the 1960s.
  • Block books. Originally designed to identify who paid property taxes, block books have maps that we use today to determine who owned a given lot. The CHS collection includes block books from 1894, 1901, 1906 (October), 1909, and 1939.



  • Records for building and permits can be found by contacting your local Planning Department, Water Department, and/or Office of the Assessor-Recorder to find application and permit information or plans related to a building. 
  • Records for the City of San Francisco that can be helpful are the San Francisco Municipal Reports, and the San Francisco City Directories at the San Francisco Public Library, which holds the full run.



  • Calisphere is a website with an online collection of digitized primary sources contributed by libraries and other cultural heritage institutions throughout the state. CHS images and texts documenting many locations across California can be accessed on the site. For CHS items, click on “Browse by institution” and then “California Historical Society” here.
  • Digitized newspapers are a wonderful source of information for any articles written about a building or neighborhood. These may be accessed through your local public library or by searching the California Digital Newspaper Collection hosted by the University of California, Riverside.



The California Historical Society does not work in the field of historic preservation and is not part of the system of recognizing or registering historic resources. A few organizations that do are listed below. 


For more information, the North Baker Research Library is open to the public by appointment, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons from 1 to 5 p.m. Please contact reference@calhist.org for further information or to make an appointment.