Researching Oakland History from Home

An overview of tools to use for researching local history online.

The Oakland History Center is usually your first stop for researching all aspects of Oakland history. We have collections of many different types of materials - photographs, maps, audio recordings, newspaper clippings, books, and more! A visit to the library is a great opportunity to see these things in person, but what can you do when the library is closed? 

Luckily there are some very valuable online tools that can help with your research from a safe social distance, hopefully while surrounded by snacks, like this Oakland fruit merchant:  

person standing in store
Unidentified produce merchant stands in his store in Oakland, California, circa 1925 from the library's collection on Calisphere

Photographs, Audio, Manuscripts, and More

Calisphere is the home of OPL’s digital collections, and here you’ll find photographs, video, audio recordings, and manuscripts from collections at the Oakland History Center, the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO), and the César E. Chávez Branch. Calisphere also hosts digital collections from many other libraries and archives throughout the state. You can search a single institution, or search the entire site. No log-in or library card is required.

Historic Newspapers 

To access our newspaper databases, start at the Historic Newspapers page. You will need to log in with your library card. When prompted for your barcode, enter the entire number on the back of your library card. Need a card? Click here

The Newspapers.com database gives you access to most issues of the Oakland Tribune, from 1874 to 1972. You can type in your keyword search and then pull down the “add more info” tab to enter “Oakland, California” as the location and a date or range of dates you’d like to search.

For more recent newspaper research, go to the Oakland Tribune Archive. Here you'll find full-text of articles published since September 14, 2001. 

Looking for articles published between 1972 and 2001? You could do a search of the Oakland Newspaper and Magazine Index. This index, produced by Oakland Public Library staff, tracks Oakland and East Bay articles appearing in the Oakland Tribune and other local newspapers and magazines. The index includes helpful citations describing where articles can be found, but no full-text articles. 

Genealogy Research

The HeritageQuest, opens a new window database is OPL's only genealogy database available outside the library. Again, you’ll need your library card to sign in to this resource. Once you’re in you can search census records, obituaries, and more to trace your family tree. 

City Directories

Want to find out about a historic business or an ancestor’s address? You need a city directory! Luckily quite a few directories are available on The Internet Archive, for years ranging from 1869 to 1928. Directories can give you a lot of information - everything from addresses and occupations of individual citizens to a list of all the barbers that were in operation in a certain year. Most directories contain both alphabetical and classified sections, and these online directories are keyword-searchable. Search for “Oakland Directory” (or just click here) and you’ll find the Polk’s and Husted’s Directories (which include both residential and business listings) as well as the Bishop’s Business Directories. There’s no need to log in to access this site. 

Historic Maps

A few maps are available on the Oakland History Center's Calisphere page. Search the collection for "cartographic," or click here, to see the nine results. 

Looking for more? The David Rumsey Collection of historic maps at Stanford University provides digital access to maps from a wide range of times and places, including hundreds of maps from Oakland and the East Bay. You won't necessarily find the same maps that are in the Oakland History Center collection, but you're likely to find something interesting. No login required, just use the search field in the upper righthand corner. 

News Footage 

The Bay Area Television Archive at San Francisco State University “preserves 6000 hours of newsfilm, documentaries and other TV footage produced in the Bay Area and Northern California from the Twentieth Century.” Searching for “Oakland” brings up primary source news footage about the Black Panthers, the Oakland Museum, Merritt College, Oak Center redevelopment, and much more. It’s worth searching here to see if your topic is represented. There’s no need to log in to access this site.  

Looking for something else?

Send your question to eanswers@oaklandlibrary.org and we’ll see what we can find!

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