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Washington, D.C., History Resources

A guide to the local history resources available on the District of Columbia.

Social Explorer

The Social Explorer is a powerful database that allows researchers to develop spatial visualizations by overlaying social statistics from upon maps using geographic systems software (GIS). This is a powerful tool for researchers as it enables them to explore demographic, economic, and political patterns between regions and changes over time. It is also possible to examine trends on a granular level, at the level of census tract. For researchers interested in D.C., it enables them to examine patterns within each of its historic jurisdictions: Washington City, Georgetown, Alexandria, and the surrounding rural counties. It is also possible to compare these patterns with the neighboring counties, other cities and towns in Maryland and Virginia, and with other states. Such comparisons enable researchers to understand the significance of trends in the District.

The most important datasets included in the Social Explorer are the population tables derived from the Decennial U.S. Census (1790-2010) and the American Community Surveys (2006-2019). The Decennial Census, taken every ten years to determine Congressional representation, records the size of American households as well the sex, age, race, and ethnicity of each individual within them. Before the Civil War, the census included information on the enslaved population. (For more information on the census, see the Genealogy and Personal History section of this guide). The American Community Surveys are conducted monthly to provide current information on housing, jobs, and education to help determine where services such as schools, highways, and hospitals are needed. 

Other available datasets include:

  • U.S. Health Data, 2010-2016
  • U.S. Longitudinal Employer Household Dynamics
  • U.S. Religion Data
  • U.S. Environmental Summaries
  • U.S. Opportunity Zones

Mapmaking is not required! It is also possible to compile statistical tables from these datasets. Social Explorer encourages users to create accounts to save their work. It is also possible to download the tables in Excel format and the maps as image files. 

Social Explorer has produced several modules to help researchers use this database, including this introduction. See the Social Explorer YouTube channel for more demonstrations.

Population Schedules of the Census as a Data Source, 1800-1930

The population schedules of the manuscript census can supplement the Social Explorer to create granular visualizations of neighborhoods. As a record of households, the manuscript census enables researchers to overcome a common bias among map makers of Washington: the built environment privileges the owners of property, not renters.  Researchers can use the manuscript census to identify a single household or peruse the pages recording a neighborhood's residents to get an idea of its racial composition and other salient demographic characteristics, or create a database. 

These methods enable researchers to overcome the flaws of the Historical Statistics that comprise the Social Explorer. From census year to census year, the boundaries and political wards change. For researchers interested in tracing the demographic transformation of a particular neighborhood, these boundaries can be arbitrary. 

The identification of a neighborhood within a census can be tricky, as enumerators did not list street addresses with each household until 1910. Researchers using the schedules created before 1910 need to identify landmarks by using the city directories, and the numerous resources discussed in this guide to maps. With that information in hand, it is possible to browse the manuscript census and identify discreet neighborhoods of interest. Others may find it useful to browse the manuscript census first and then look for landmarks to locate the neighborhood within the census. For example, look for a hotel, boarding school, jail, or other structure with both an accessible address and a distinctive residential structure to find discreet neighborhoods.

Presented in a tabular format, the census lends itself to computational analysis. It is possible to create databases of an area as small as a few city blocks or as large as the entire city that can provide information such as racial composition, property ownership, occupation, and other demographic characteristics of a neighborhood. The census can reveal how residents responded to their living and economic conditions by looking at patterns in household size, the prevalence of households headed by women, the number of children within a household, the presence of households with more than one nuclear family within it, and the occupations held by residents.

Rob Shepard explained his methods of creating maps of Washington that includes a discussion of his methods in his essay "Historical Geography, GIS, and Civil War Washington." The manuscript census and city directories are the sources used in the maps that illustrate his essay.

For more information on the manuscript census and city directories, consult the "Genealogy and Personal History" section of this guide.


The National Archives and Records Administration is the repository for the federal census. The manuscript copies of the free and enslaved populations are available on microfilm. Archivists will make original manuscripts available only if pages are illegible on microfilm.

The D.C. Public Library holds microfilm copies of the District of Columbia.

Digital Access:

Machine-readable copies of the population schedules are accessible on Ancestry and HeritageQuest to libraries and individuals with subscriptions. To learn more about a specific community, it is best to browse through census pages for the subdivisions as described above.

The D.C. Public Library has subscriptions to both Ancestry Library edition and HeritageQuest that is available to library card holders. (All Georgetown students and D.C. residents can apply online for a card number). 

  • Ancestry Library edition (available only in D.C. Public Library branches; it is temporarily open to researchers from any location)
  • HeritageQuest (available with internet access at any location)

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