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Researching Historic Houses

A guide to the process and resources for researching historic properties in Maryland.

Tips & Hints

Before getting too far into your research, it is important to establish exactly what your research goals are, and therefore, what your focus will be in the process. See the panel on the left for suggested ways to focus your research.

Make Contact
Speaking with the people who can help you through your research is essential. Whether you are calling a neighbor for an interview or emailing a repository to make arrangements for a visit, contact is crucial. You may need to use phone, email, or both to initiate contact. While email is often convenient, some small organizations cannot respond to you message with haste. A phone call or preliminary visit will help smooth the way for future visits. The same is true of a person you wish to interview. Setting up a preliminary meeting can help the interviewee gain a sense of what you would like to know and give them time to think and gather materials, such as photographs and newspaper clippings, before your next meeting. At the same time, you can learn if a repository or interviewee can provide you with the information you need or if you must look elsewhere.

Come Prepared 

Whether you are visiting a local library, a historical society or the State Archives, be sure you are aware of the basics, including hours of operation, rules and procedures for visits, and service fees (the cost of copies, etc.). Most research facilities require you to bring a photo ID and to fill out a registration form. They will likely require you to lock up most of your belongings while you are working. Also be aware that you may need to contact certain places before your visit, and may need to request the materials you are looking for in advance. To review the policies of individual agencies, visit the following pages:

  1. Maryland State Archives Visitor Page
  2. The National Archives (NARA)
  3. The Maryland Room at the University of Maryland College Park Campus. Materials from the National Trust Library are requested through The Maryland Room.
  4. Maryland Resources From the University of Maryland Library

Look Locally
Be sure to visit your local historical society to get information specific to you town or city as well as county records. These historical societies often have small publications with pictures, photographs, and other material that may be helpful in your process.

Keep Good Records
Whether you use a notebook or a computer, be sure to keep organized records of everything you find in the process. Keep or copy any relevant photographs, images, records, or newspaper articles in a reliable container. Good record keeping will help you connect the steps of your research. Include contact cards and print outs from various repositories along with your notes so you can reconnect with people and places easily. Furthermore, if you are conducting research over a long period of time, keeping materials organized and together will help you get back to your work after a long break. Without proper records, retracing your steps or creating a final product will be very difficult, if not impossible.

Be Patient
When visiting local repositories and working with their staff, remember that many sites have limited budgets and personnel, so it may take some time for them to accommodate you. Calling ahead to secure materials and making arrangements to meet with a staff member may be an easy way to meet your needs upon your arrival at the repository. Be sure to leave plenty of time for research, in case you encounter delays.

Areas to Focus On

Physical History

How did your home develop physically over time? Has the size of the property or home changed over time? Are their additions? When were they added? Was the property ever subdivided? What was its style and is it typical of the area? Were there out buildings on the property and are they still there or in the same place? Did the buildings ever sustain major damage from fires or other disasters?

Souces of Information: building permits, Sanborn Maps and other maps, style guides, photographs and images, builders guides, property abstracts

Personal History

Who lived there and for how long? What roles did the owners play in the community? Did you home serve another function, such as a shop or boarding house? Did one family own the home for many generations or were the residents transient? Did the residents have ties to other buildings in the community (Churches, Schools, etc)?

Sources of Information: chain of title with the use of deeds and tax assessments, obituaries, newspapers, funeral directories, personal interviews, images and memorabilia, insurance and probate records.

Note: Intense Genealogical research is beyond the scope of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Library. If you are interested in this type of research, you will need to explore other sources for material related to genealogical research.

Has Research Already Been Done on Your House?

Its possible that some research might have already been done on the property you are researching. Perhaps it is listed on a local register of historic properties, or maybe it was surveyed by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Here are some places you might want to check:

  • Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties
    This contains a list of properties that are recognized as historic by the Maryland Historical Trust. Accompanying each property is a nomination form that has a wealth of information on the site. Most of these nominations forms are available digitally, and accessible from this site.
  • National Register of Historic Places
    This is a great source of information if your property is a contributing property in a historic district listed on the National Register. Here you can find information on what makes your neighborhood historic and see how your property fits in the context of the neighborhood.  
  • Historic American Buildings Survey
    Since 1933 surveys were conducted of various historic properties throughout the United States. This site contains digitized versions of these surveys that include photographs, measured drawings, and historical notes.