Preserving the History of New Brunswick with Community Webs

January 4th, 2024

Guest post by Jacquelyn Oshman, Head of Circulation, New Brunswick Free Public Library

This post is part of a series written by members of the Community Webs program. Community Webs advances the capacity for community-focused memory organizations to build web and digital archives documenting local histories and underrepresented voices. For more information, visit

Before I became a librarian, one of my first projects as an intern at the New Brunswick Free Public Library was to organize and inventory the old “vertical file” of newspaper clippings for easy and efficient patron access. The knowledge I gained from this project about the history of New Brunswick led to my unofficial position as local historian at the Library. Since then, I have answered hundreds of questions on the history of New Brunswick from a diverse field of patrons like current and former residents, Rutgers students and faculty, authors, genealogists, historians, and more. In 2017, the library applied to be a part of the Community Webs program due to the lack of physical newspaper stories being printed with the transition to digital and online-only news sources and the lack of space to continue adding to our vertical file cabinets. We wanted to continue collecting online information about the city, so in the future we can continue to be an informative resource to learn about our city’s history, just as we always have.

New Brunswick Free Public Library

The City of New Brunswick was incorporated in 1730 and is the home of Rutgers University, the Johnson & Johnson Worldwide Headquarters, and two major hospitals. We have a rich history going back to the original Lenni Lenape Native American inhabitants and prominent events and figures that are connected to the city’s history like George Washington’s headquarters and encampments during the Revolutionary War, the third public reading of the Declaration of Independence, the first intercollegiate football game (Rutgers vs. Princeton), the infamous unsolved Hall-Mills murder, and the race riots of the 1970’s, to name a few. The demographics of the city have changed drastically over the years as well, primarily due to the transition from European immigrants who came to work in the factories in the late 1800s to the current influx of immigrants from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. 

One of the primary sources we use for answering local history and genealogical questions is our City Directory collection. The City Directories– precursors to phonebooks– hold valuable information about the residents, businesses, and history of the city. The library owns editions dating from 1855 through 1985, and then Yellowpages phone books cover 1986 to the present. Not only are residents listed with their home address, but advertisements and a subject listing for businesses are included, as well as the history of the town and its politicians at the time. Our microfilmed and digitized newspaper collections begin in 1871, so having information in the directories from 1855-1871 is the only source of information we have to see if someone lived or worked in New Brunswick. Moreover, these editions are rare. We found out that every edition of the New Brunswick City Directory is available on EXCEPT for 1855-1871! The library owns four volumes in this time frame– 1855-56, 1865-66, 1866-67, and 1870-71– and they have seen a lot of use, as evidenced by the worn condition of the pages!

Damaged cover of the 1870-1871 City Directory

When the Community Webs program announced digitization opportunities with the National Historical Publications and Records Commission Archives Collaboratives grant, we expressed interest and shared our city’s unique and pressing need for digitization of these directories. Not only did we want these volumes to be digitized for easier research and access, we wanted to capture a more complete history of New Brunswick online alongside our web archive collections and prevent more damage to the physical volumes.

Digitized and keyword searchable images of the 1870-1871 City Directory

After the digitization was completed in autumn 2023, we created a new page on our website that linked to the four directories on We publicized the digitization with announcements on multiple online genealogy and history resources so interested patrons would be aware. Moreover, I will be presenting with other Community Webs digitization partners on a panel at the New England Archivists Spring Conference, in Providence, Rhode Island, in March. I look forward to sharing information about this project with grant partners Brooklyn Public Library and Forbes Public Library, and I look forward to continued and enhanced use of these directories by our patrons.

The Internet Archive and Community Webs are thankful for the support from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission for Collaborative Access to Diverse Public Library Local History Collections, which will digitize and provide access to a diverse range of local history archives that represent the experiences of immigrant, indigenous, and African American communities throughout the United States.