Select Page

More useable photos

If you have ancestors from New York City, live in New York City, live near New York City, love New York City or even … sigh… are among those who love to hate New York City, The Legal Genealogist has good news for you.

1913 Queens church

You’ve read by now, I hope, of the absolutely stunning online gallery of the New York City Department of Records.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of fabulous photographs that have been digitized from the Municipal Archives’ vast holdings — some 872,466 of them as of today — and that can be accessed online through the Photo Gallery page of the Archives’ website.

Even listing the categories that these photos cover is enough to make any genealogist with even a remote tie to the City drool. There isn’t enough space in this blog to list them all, but here’s just a sampling:

     • 152 maps and atlases, “mostly ‘estate and farm’ maps that illustrate how the 1811 grid plan sliced up the original farms and estates into lots suitable for development. Each map depicts a several block area in Manhattan.”

     • 1,510 images of bridges, buildings and other structures, dating from 1860 into the 20th century, and including everything from aerials to subways.

     • 763 images dating from 1900-1960, discovered in the Fire Department’s Forensic Unit office. Fire scenes, fire equipment, portraits and more are among the black and white photos.

     • 1,279 images from the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. These date from 1935-1943 and include “aerial and panoramic views; bridges; buildings; industry and trade; parks; people; street scenes; transportation; waterfront; WPA activities.”

     • 1,373 images of “school buildings, staff, educational activities, and special events in the school system” including “a set of 19th-century engravings of school buildings.”

And, of course, the two that are nearest and dearest to The Legal Genealogist’s heart:

1931 Lucky Luciano mug shot

     • 40 photographs, (mug shots, crime scenes, etc.) selected from the New York and Brooklyn District Attorney closed case files.

     • 1,326 images from the New York Police Department crime scene laboratory. Dating from 1915-1930s, these include crime scenes, homicide victims, police officers, vehicles, horses, dogs, evidence, and more. Warning: not for the squeamish. When they say homicide victims, they mean it.

Now when I say that doesn’t begin to describe the scope of the collection, I really mean it. You have got to take some time and wander through this online gallery. Take a look at churches in Queens, cemeteries in Brooklyn, the Bowery in Manhattan, and so much more.

And that’s not the good news. The good news is — New York City would love it if you would use these images in your family history.

I wasn’t sure that would be the case when I took a careful look at the gallery home page. There’s language on the page that suggests otherwise: “Patrons may order prints or digital files, and license images or film clips for commercial use. … Before using any images from this site, please review our Terms and Conditions.”1

And when you go to the Terms and Conditions page, it turns out it’s not a Terms and Conditions page — it’s an order form. With a steep price list ranging from $45 for an 8×10 print or high resolution digital file to $120 for a 16×20 print. And, the order page says, “High-quality digital files are also available for reproduction in books, journals, magazines/newspapers, documentaries, exhibitions, Internet, etc. for … additional license fees” and “If you wish to PUBLISH a photograph, or use it for any COMMERCIAL purpose, you must apply for permission and pay the appropriate license fee.”2

These sorts of terms, remember, are “the limits somebody who owns something you want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let you see or copy or use it. These are limits that are different from copyright protection, since the law says what is and isn’t copyrighted and you can own a thing without owning the copyright. So this isn’t copyright law; it’s contract law — you and whoever owns the thing you want to see or copy or use reach a deal.”3

Not to worry. Kenneth R. Cobb is the assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Records, and he’s the man in charge of permissions for the use of these images. I had the opportunity to chat with him about what is and isn’t permitted without permission and the licensing fee.

NYC fire pumper

First off, Mr. Cobb emphasized that New York City wants you to use these images.4 If your great grandfather was a city fireman who worked with the old pump engines, New York City would be delighted to have you use an image like this one of an old pumper, in a blog post, in an article you write about your great grandfather for a genealogy publication, or in a limited edition family history you’re preparing for your family only. And the rules don’t change if you use Google AdWords or some other minor method of trying to pay the bills for your blog. That’s not considered commercial use by the City.

Second, if you’re satisfied with the image that’s on the web and can make do with a copy of that, you don’t need to buy a print from the City. Only if you need a higher resolution copy do you need to order a print. Or, of course, if you’d really like to own a copy or to give one as a gift.

Third, the same rules apply if you’re doing research as a professional for someone else. As long as the person you’re doing the research for is going to use the image for a blog post, an article or a limited edition family history, it doesn’t require permission or a license fee even if you’re the one doing the work and you’re getting paid for it.

By contrast, if what you want to do with the image is use it in a movie, put it on a postcard for sale, add it to a commercial book publishing project or the like, then you’ll need to follow the steps to buy the image and get permission to publish or use.

Otherwise, Commissioner Cobb said, if the image as it appears online is adequate for your use, please do use it.

Just make sure you give the New York City Municipal Archives credit each and every time you use one of the images. But then you’d do that anyway, citing your sources, right? Right!


In my book, this policy makes Ken Cobb and the NYC Municipal Archives a candidate for the genealogical community’s new BFF.5 What a wonderful resource… with such refreshing rules on access and use.


Images courtesy of New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery.

  1. NYC MUNICIPAL ARCHIVES GALLERY,” ( : accessed 2 Oct 2012).
  2. ORDER FORM,” ( : accessed 2 Oct 2012).
  3. Judy G. Russell, “A terms of use intro,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 2 Oct 2012).
  4. Kenneth R. Cobb, New York City, interview by the author, 28 Sep 2012; notes privately held by interviewer.
  5. I am perhaps reliably informed by the younger set in my family that BFF means best friend forever. I wouldn’t put it past them to be pulling my leg, but online sources appear to agree. See Internet Slang – Internet Dictionary, ( : accessed 2 Oct 2012), “BFF.”
Print Friendly, PDF & Email