The Oakland History Center (formerly the Oakland History Room), located on the second floor of the Oakland Public Library Main Branch, houses archives relating to the history of Oakland and the East Bay. They have both many books about Oakland, and significant primary documents relating to Oakland history. It’s a great place to go to research Oakland history. Although none of the materials can be taken out of the Oakland History Center, there are duplicate copies of some items available for check-out at the Main Library or other branches, and some materials have been digitized.
Appointments are recommended (but not required) for researchers in the Oakland History Center. Making an appointment gives staff time to search for the resources that will be most useful to answer specific questions. You can also send questions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The East Bay Express named the Oakland History Room the “Best Place to Brush Up On Local History” in 2013. OWers may think this is kind of “duh” but it’s good recognition!
NOTE: Whenever you digitize any document from the library and post it on this site, please include the label “Courtesy Oakland History Center, Oakland Public Library”!
The History Center's collections include:
Books about Oakland and California in shelves around the room, arranged in standard Dewey Decimal order.
- Two closed-off rooms in the southern part of the room house the Center’s oversize books and books specifically pertaining to local history. There are also many additional books in the storage area. Although secured in these rooms, they’re still available for your use! You need only ask a librarian, and they’ll retrieve the specific materials you require.
- Searching the library's online catalog as well as the physical Local History Index card catalog will lead you to books and periodical articles relating to a wide variety of local history topics.
- Photograph collection: Behind the reference desk is a room with thousands of original photos. To access these, ask the librarian for photos on a particular topic (ex: West Oakland in the 1980s) and they’ll bring you the relevant photos. A small portion of the photograph collection has been digitized, and is available to browse on Calisphere.
- Clipping Files: The Center has folders filled with newspaper and magazine clippings and primary documents organized by subject (ex: theaters of Oakland, specific neighborhoods, and more). These are mostly to the left of the reference desk and are a great place to delve into historic materials on a particular subject. Although alphabetized by subject, the subjects aren’t always obvious, so it’s best to speak with a librarian about the subject you’re researching. For example, information about “Glenview” is in the section for “Oakland. Districts. Glenview”, not in a section called “Glenview.”
- Map Room: Just down the hall from the Oakland History Center is the Map Room, which is a great place to search for the history of your home or other Oakland buildings. Although you need a librarian to give you access to the room, once inside you’ll find a wealth of primary materials including Sanborn Maps from 1882–1951, records of Oakland property assessments and property taxes from 1859–1925, and posters on topics including sports, music, fairs, circuses, parades, and more. Other types of maps are also available back in the main room.
- City Directories: The Center holds original versions of Oakland City Directories (precursors to the yellow pages) that’re clearly pre-internet era (1870–1904) because they include names, home addresses, place of employment, and employer address! Some city directories are available online - see a full list of directories here.
- Vital records: These include birth and death certificates from 1870–1904. Birth certificates include name of child and parents. Death certificates include cause of death, doctor, the person's address at time of death, and place of burial. It is best to have a birth or death date before you start searching these records.
- School Archive: The Center includes materials on many Oakland Schools including photos of original school buildings (many of which burned or were demolished), class photos, and more (including a unique history of a high school which was closed in 2012). There is also a large collection of yearbooks.
- Oakland Public Library Archives: Documents, photographs, reports, newsletters, and flyers recording the history of the Oakland Public Library.
- Program files: Programs for concerts, plays, funerals, grand openings, church services, and more are stored in the Photo Room. Ask a librarian about the topic you're interested in and they will pull the appropriate folders for you.
- Jack London Collection: A large collection of works by and about Jack London, as well as extensive clippings, correspondence, and more.
- Special Collections and Manuscript Collections: OHC has numerous special collections of materials relating to specific topics. The special collections vary greatly in size from one box to 30+ boxes, and include a wide variety of types of materials. The manuscript collections are primarily correspondence, but also include some photographs and other documents. You can browse all of the special collections and manuscript collections on OHC's website. They can also be found by searching the library catalog.
- Oral histories: The Center has a collection of local oral histories. You can read the transcripts or listen to the original audio. Some oral histories have been digitized and made available online via OHC's partnership with California Revealed.
- Postcards: A large collection of Oakland postcards, organized by topic, is a great place to find images of things that weren't ever photographed. Postcards were extremely popular in the early 20th century, and the bulk of the collection is from that period, but it also includes older and more modern postcards.
- Trade catalogs and letterhead collection: These are often overlooked resources that can be helpful when researching local businesses.
Cool picture of Dorothy Lazard, retired OHC librarian with some pictures here.
125 - 14th Street, Oakland, CA 94612
- Monday - Thursday: 10:00 AM–8:00 PM
- Friday: 12:00 PM–5:30 PM
- Saturday - Sunday: 10:00 AM–5:30 PM
In 1921, librarian Mabel Thomas began assembling the California Collection. When the new Main Library opened in 1951, the California Collection was moved there and renamed the California Room. In 1978 it was renamed the Oakland History Room to reflect its focus on more local history. In late 2019, it was renamed the Oakland History Center, to better reflect the scope of the collection and the work done by its staff.
Links and References
- Oakland History Center website