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Central Library's Humanities Department

Central Library
Frank P. Zeidler Humanities Room, 2nd floor
(414) 286-3061

The Humanities are concerned with questions of value as well as of fact. History, biography and genealogy record our personal and communal past; geography studies place. Sociology focuses on the organization and interaction of groups of people, while law and political science deal with the direction of the state. Ethics analyzes mutual obligation; psychology and education the inner life. Philosophy and religion deal with our ultimate concerns. Language and literature form the means of our self-expression.

Reference Materials
The Humanities Room itself is divided into different areas. There are two sets of browsable stacks, and a set of closed stacks located behind the desk.

The browsable stacks are broken up into the open stacks and the local history materials. The open stacks include books on general knowledge such as: religion, psychology, philosophy, law/legal materials, government, literature, history and travel. The local history materials contain reference materials with areas of interest to genealogy and the history of Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

The materials in the closed stacks are available to the public, but a librarian must retrieve those materials.

[Legal Materials brochure] This handout is only for informational purposes regarding the Milwaukee Public Library System's holdings. Anyone with a legal problem or question is strongly advised and encouraged to consult an attorney.


Photo courtesy of the Historic Photo ArchivesThe Humanities Department’s main areas of focus are Genealogy and Local History. Many different resources exist to aid the genealogist in the search for their family’s history. Humanities has partnered with the Milwaukee County Genealogical Society (MCGS) who have generously provided funding for two important genealogy resources online: Ancestry Library Edition and Heritage Quest.

Resources are available for the beginner in the form of classes run by the MCGS, and materials created by the Humanities Department librarians.

Resources for more advanced genealogy research include:
Vital Records materials
Obituary and Death Notice resources
African-American Genealogy materials

[Wisconsin Military Collections brochure] Information on military service members from Wisconsin.

[Researching the Family Tree brochure] A genealogical resource. The genealogical materials at the library are enhanced by related collections which have been developed for more than a century.

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Local History

Photo courtesy of the Historic Photo ArchivesThe history of Wisconsin in general and Milwaukee in particular is an area of great focus for the Humanities Department. Beyond books on the history of the city (and there are a lot of those!) Humanities has many materials for the researcher of local history.

The department has a copy, either in print or on microfilm of every Milwaukee City Directory and phone book ever published. A number of suburban city directories and telephone books are available as well.

The department also has a stellar map collection. Cartographic materials include Milwaukee fire insurance atlases which cover the time period from the mid-1880s through the 1960s, plat maps and atlases that represent every county in Wisconsin, City of Milwaukee maps from all decades since Milwaukee’s founding, and much more.

Many other types of materials are available. A good place to learn more about those materials and their use is to attend one of the Humanities Department’s extremely popular programs on House History. The House History program is held a couple of times a year.

[Map Collection brochure] The Milwaukee Public Library's Map Collection includes maps both current and historical with an emphasis on those relating to Milwaukee.

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Archives and Special Collections

The Humanities Department is home to seven different archives and special collections. These archives are:

City Archives
By City Ordinance and Wisconsin Statute, all records generated by the city must be scheduled and approved by the City Records Committee and certain schedules must also be approved by the Wisconsin Historical Records Board.  Original records not microfilmed by the City Records Center are sent to the City Archives. The materials in the City Archives are in a variety of formats, including but not limited to bound consultant reports, correspondence files, department journals and ledger books, soft cover departmental annual reports, and tax records.

Historic Photo Archives
The Historic Photo Archives includes over 50,000 photographs of Milwaukee dating from the late 19th century to the present. The archives includes not only photographs but also collection of approximately 1,000 portraits of Milwaukeeans and national figures who had their pictures taken while visiting Milwaukee. In addition there is a large postcard collection that features more than 2,000 color and black and white postcards of Milwaukee architecture, businesses, bridges, churches, schools,  parks, streets, and much more.

[Photo Archives brochure] The Milwaukee Public Library's Photo Archives provide a rich source of images of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee-related places, people, and events.

Manuscript Collection
The Humanities Manuscript Collection contains manuscripts, diaries, correspondence and other primary source material that focus on the City of Milwaukee.

Marine Collection
In affiliation with the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society, the library's Great Lakes Marine Collection includes ship files, log books, vessel plans, wreck reports and much more.

[Great Lakes Marine Collection brochure] The Milwaukee Public Library's Great Lakes Marine Collection includes books, photographs, articles and records that document vessels that sailed the Great Lakes.

The Milwaukee Public Library’s Own Archives
MPL has a large collection of historical materials that relates to its own history. Materials include photographs, publications, and miscellaneous documents as they relate to the library’s own history.

Milwaukee Road
MPL was designated in 1981 as the official archives of the Milwaukee Road, and has since been receiving historical materials from the Road as well as the Soo Line, which took over the line. The collection has grown to be quite large, with tens of thousands of items – valuable material for historians and train buffs.

When requesting information from the collection, please use the Milwaukee Road Archives Inquiry form. For inquiries about employee records, please fill out and send a waiver form along with your completed inquiry form. Forms should be sent to the address listed at the bottom of the inquiry form

The Wisconsin Architectural Archives was founded in 1975 and is a collection of drawings which record the talent and design styles of architects who shaped much of the appearance and history of Wisconsin. The WAA is dedicated to the acquisition and preservation of architectural drawings and materials.

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Digital Collections and Databases

In addition to its physical holdings, the Humanities Department has also created a number of digital collections and indexes.

The digital collections currently consist of:

Milwaukee Historic Photos
The collection represents the start of the process of making historic photos of Milwaukee available online. The photos from this collection are from the Milwaukee Public Library’s historic photograph collection.

Milwaukee Waterways
These photographs are from the Port of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Library Historic Photo Collection, and the Great Lakes Marine Collection of Milwaukee Public Library and the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society.  A matching grant from the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program helped preserve these photographs and make them available on line.

Remember When
A popular feature of The Milwaukee Journal from 1963 through 1994 prepared by library staff to highlight Milwaukee's past as preserved in the Historic Photo Collection.
The digital indexes currently consist of:

Newspaper clippings
This subject listing of people, places, events, etc. represents newspaper articles clipped by librarians from Milwaukee area newspapers published mainly in the middle to late 20th century.

Information on more than 10,000 Great Lakes vessels dating from 1815 to the present. It is a database of the Great Lakes Marine Collection of the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society and the Milwaukee Public Library.

World War I Military Portraits
A collection of 3,192 photographs of World War I military personnel from Milwaukee County are housed at the Central Library. This index includes the names of individuals in the photograph collection.

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