Archives Service Center

Pittsburgh’s history in boxes.

Hours: Monday – Friday, 9am – 4:45pm

Admission: Free

Handicap accessible

Address: 7500 Thomas Boulevard, Pittsburgh, PA

Travel directions: 67, 69, and 71C buses stop near the building. They also have a small, free parking lot and a free shuttle from the University of Pittsburgh campus, outside Hillman Library.


Located in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the Archives Services Center itself is a rather unassuming building. Nothing about its exterior appearance sets it apart from any regular office building. What’s inside, however, can take you back in time through many aspects of Pittsburgh’s history. Maps, documents, photographs and video are all together in the Archives, just waiting to be seen. The Archives are home to many pieces of Pittsburgh’s history which have been donated by families, organizations, the government, companies and more. The bulk of the material at the Archives is from the mid-1800s to the late 1990s, and is related to Pittsburgh’s history.

Inside this building are many pieces of Pittsburgh’s History

Although it is part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Library System, anyone is welcome to visit, not just students and staff. In fact, researchers from all over the world have used materials at the Archives in their studies. Many researchers do research daily for weeks or months at a time, but it is not necessary to be an academic researcher to see what the Archives Center has to offer. Recently, Wikipedians have been doing research with the Archives Center and citing the Archives Center in their Wikipedia articles.

Because its cataloguing system is so intricate and its materials so vast, it is recommended that a potential visitor call ahead before visiting the Archives. This is so the staff members can pull materials before your arrival. However, it is not required to have an appointment, it is merely suggested. Due to the fact that many are original copies, materials from the Archives are not able to be checked out. This is the primary difference between the Archives and a regular library. Additionally, food, drinks, and pens are not allowed in the reading room, in order to protect the materials. However, the Archives Center is working on a continuous project of digitizing their materials so people will be able to look at them without being inside of the Archives Service Center. This is helpful as we move toward an era where everything is digital. A digital archive will also help to protect and preserve the quality of the original documents.

The Archives Service Center is a highly recommended spot for anyone with an interest in Western Pennsylvania’s history. Its diverse and unique materials, including photographs, films, maps and court cases, may not be found anywhere else. It is well worth a visit to see what interesting things you can learn.

Up until 2015, advertisers, movies, and restaurants had to pay a company in order to use “Happy Birthday to You”, one of the most well-known songs in the world. A lawsuit against the company that claimed to own the copyright to the lyrics was in the works, but thanks to the Archives Services Center at the University of Pittsburgh, the song now belongs to the public domain. According to a 2015 article by Tony Raap for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Archive employees found the song in a songbook dating back to 1927, long before the company in question claimed it. This songbook is just one of many interesting artifacts, spanning from the mid-1800s to the present, that the Archives hold.

Dive through the Archive Service Center

By: Nick Ambrosini

While the Archive Service Center itself has a complex history, one of its most intriguing qualities is how it functions as a gateway into the history of the city of Pittsburgh. Through images, texts, and maps submitted by large corporations and individuals alike, the ASC helps to draw a story for its audience of what is important to the city of Pittsburgh and its residents. One large collection at the Archive Resource Center is that of maps and images of the coal mines that were once prominent in Pittsburgh and the surrounding region. Now, most of the mines are closed, no longer accessible. Many of the pictures owned previously by the corporations and the people who worked for them have made their way into the archives, to serve as a record of the lives of the coal mines and their workers. The coal mines – along with steel mills – are a defining factor in Pittsburgh’s history, and they contribute very much to what made Pittsburgh the city it is today.

“Coal Mining”: View of a miner working inside the tunnel. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, Vesta Division, ca. 1940-9. ASC Identifier 9116.333.CL

The image in Figure 1, taken in an unknown location, shows an average miner working inside a tunnel. It is a simple image, though at the same time it is also very complex. It allows the viewer a glimpse into the daily life of a mine worker in industrial Pittsburgh. It shows the large machinery the miners worked with, the darkness of the inside of the mine, and to an extent the dirt and soot encountered working in the mine. In his theory of space, Edward Soja proposed the idea of lived space – as an addition to perceived and conceived space. What this means is that space is not only made up of physical elements and conceptual elements, but also an aspect that incorporates the experiences of anyone who has ever come into contact with the environment. The Archive Service Center and its collections help to pump life – lived space – into many otherwise dormant spaces. Figure 2 shows the loading of steel barges, used to transport coal from mines to mills. The large building is a tipple, which is a structure used to load coal from the mines onto the transport cars. While this particular image is not in Pittsburgh, but rather slightly south of it, tipples just like it could be seen all along the Monongahela River at the height of industry in Pittsburgh, and barges – the large boats which transport the coal – could be seen travelling from mines to mill sites riverside throughout the city.

“Loading Coal at a Jones & Laughlin Mine”: ca. 1915-8. Steel barge being loaded at a Vesta Coal Company tipple on the bank of the Monongahela River. A fleet of about twelve rowboats and several hundred steel barges (pictured here) were required to transport coal between the mines and the mills in Pittsburgh and Aliquippa. Approximately 20,000 tons of coal per working day were consumed at the steel works and coke oven at the Jones & Laughlin mills. ASC Identifier MSP33.B009.F06.I08

Now, the coal mines – and steel mills, and many other fields of industry – are not as prominent in the area. As you go out further away from Pittsburgh, you can still find active and sometimes even inactive mines, though many close to the city have been sealed off. With changes in environmental regulations in recent years and an increase in cost to produce such products within the United States, much of this work has been outsourced to other countries.  Pittsburgh is no longer the industrial mecca it once was. In Out of this Furnace, a novel which follows three generations of a family of immigrants from Hungary who came to America and worked in the steel mills, author Thomas Bell states,

American industry, for all its boasting, was still crude and wasteful in its methods; and part of the cost of its education, – of that technique it was, in time, to consider, somewhat smugly, as a uniquely American heritage, a gift of God to the corporations of America, – was the lives and bodies of thousands of its workers (47)

While he was referring to the mills in his comment, the same rings true of mining – the job was difficult and often unpleasant for its workers, but it brought in a stable income and the people who worked in these industries were proud of their work and the bonds formed with other miners they met while working. Keeping a record of these times helps to keep alive the experiences of these workers, and pass down their stories for generations to come.

Many people in today’s younger generations did not grow up experiencing these locations the same way their parents did. Kids in Pittsburgh now have grown up hearing stories of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and other leaders of industry, or maybe they’ve grown up hearing of a family member or neighbor recounting their days working in the mills, or in the mines. The Archive Service Center brings these places and memories to life for a new generation who never got to experience them. Alternatively, urbexing allows for people to view these sites in a physical way. Urban exploration, often called urbexing for short, refers to exploring into abandoned locations, sometimes even inside buildings or other man-made infrastructure, to get a personal look at a site’s ruins. Though urbexing often encroaches on legal boundaries, it allows you to get a firsthand experience of the space, physical, conceived, and lived, and draw your own experience into the history of that site. In 2003, the Post-Gazette documented a group of kids exploring, among other places, the Newfield Mine, which sits along Plum Creek in Verona, an area adjacent to Pittsburgh. In a way similar but also not, the group is exploring the history of the mine as would the Archive Service Center – looking at what’s around, observing documents, memories.

The brick buildings appear bombed out — the handiwork of dedicated vandals. Robinson crouches near a crude fire ring and sifts through a mound of papers, which on closer inspection turn out to be mine records. He reads off the dates — 1973, 1971. Here’s a pay stub from Nov. 30, 1969, when a miner named Ludwig earned $242.34. Robinson lifts one of the yellowed slips to his nose and announces, ‘Ah, smell it: The smell of urban exploring!’ (Batz)

Click here to see a blog with images from the area around the former Newfield Mine, ca. 2013. 

My Journey Through the Archives

By: Seana Gysling

Before my experience with the Archives Service Center in Pittsburgh, I had never used an archive before.  Is the Archives Service Center a large warehouse-like facility with storage rooms of documents, diaries, records, notebooks, and photographs but also a digital space to sift through information?  How did the center get all of these resources?  What makes something valuable enough to keep in the Archives?  Who sorts through and organizes all of the collections?  

The Visitor Center of the Archives Service Center

My first experience with the Archives Service Center was through my English Literature class, Secret Pittsburgh.  In this class, we explore less-known spots of Pittsburgh and write guidebook entries about each site.  Our class got to experience a guided tour of the Archives Service Center. When exploring the warehouse space of the Archives Service Center, I found a particular document that caught my interest; John Tate’s book on the Harmony Society called “The Harmony Society at Economy Penna.” This book connected with one of my other classes called Cities in Historical Perspective in which we are studying patterns of urbanization, relationships of urban spaces and Utopian societies.  The Harmony Society was model society that believed in collectivism.  The author, John Tate, was a wealthy man who grew up about 4 miles away from Economy, PA, the home of the Harmony Society.  There, he took pictures and observed the society members “work on their farm, the grist mill, cider press and bakery” (Tate).  Because of the exclusivity of the Harmony Society, it was rare for a nonmember to know much about the society’s lifestyle. Tate, because of his close connection to the society, was able to compose a scrapbook-like account of the Harmony’s Society culture. He even had the luxury of sending his black and white photos to Japan to have them hand water-colored for his book.  

After seeing this book in person and the amazingly intricate watercolor drawings of the society, I wanted to research more into the Harmony Society by examining the digitized version of John Tate’s book on the Archives Service Center website.  So I took my search to the digital realm of the Archives Service Center on the Historic Pittsburgh website. The Historic Pittsburgh website was difficult to navigate at first.  It searches by tag names which is great for searching board topics such as “Oakland” or “Carnegie” however it was difficult to perform a narrow search. So I took my search to University of Pittsburgh’s Digital Library which allowed me to search in a more focused manner.  After typing “John M Tate” into the search bar, I found “The Harmony Society at Economy Penna” as my first result.

After my small victory of finding John Tate’s digitized book, I was rather disappointed to find that the digital book’s pages were discolored.  This discoloration of the water-colored photographs took away from the impressiveness and authenticity of the book. However, the Archives Service Center has much more to explore than just the Harmony Society. I decided to take my journey through the Archives in a new direction. Instead I changed my study to look at the life of steel workers during Pittsburgh’s boom of the steel mill industry.  

This is where the Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection, a part of the Historic Pittsburgh website that archives digital images, came into great use for me. I was able to search by sub collections within the Historic Pittsburgh Image collection. I started browsing through the sub collections ranging from “Hebrew Institute Photographs” to “Pittsburgh Public Schools Photographs”.  The one collection that caught my eye was the “Urban League of Pittsburgh Records” which follows the history of Pittsburgh’s branch of the National Urban League.  Pittsburgh’s Urban League was founded in 1910 with an emphasis on “African-American employment and training…” including “federal housing projects, youth employment, worker discrimination and African-American welfare work” (“Urban League”). Still in existence today, the National Urban League is a nationwide organization “dedicated to economic empowerment in order to elevate the standard of living in historically underserved urban communities” (“Who We Are”).

Before diving into the working conditions of black steelworkers in the early 1900s, first I needed to do some background research on African American populations in Pittsburgh as a whole.  I used the description section of the Urban League Collection to help narrow my search to a certain time period.  After reading the description section, I zoomed in on the African American Great Migration during World War I.  Between 1915-1960 about five million African-Americans from the south moved to northern, industrial cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago to find work (Gottlieb).  During World War I specifically, about 454,000 African-American workers moved from the South to escape poor economic conditions as well as social oppression in the South (Gottlieb). During this time period, the South experienced a huge economic decline from an insect called boll weevil. The boll weevil insect destroyed a significant amount of the cotton crop in the South causing a decrease in demand for both sharecroppers and tenant farmers.  At this time there was also an increased demand for workers in northern industrial cities. Thus, many African Americans moved north in search of a better life. Yet soon the rapid population increase in northern cities lead to competitions for suitable housing among workers.

“However, miserable working conditions in the mills and inferior housing accommodations in Pittsburgh and the surrounding milltowns dashed the hopes of many migrants who thought of the North as a “Promised Land.”” (Dickerson, 41)

Braddock bunkhouse for Historic Image Collection

From there I wanted to find specific images to read into the working conditions of African American workers and what was the Urban Leagues role in helping alleviate these conditions.  I found this one picture of an African American bunkhouse. The limited description on the Archives Service Center website said that the bunkhouse was located in Braddock, PA, which I knew was famous for being the home of Carnegie’s steel industry. After trying to extract information from the picture with my limited knowledge of the history of black steelworkers and working conditions, I turned to David Grinnell, Expert Reference and Access Archivist at the Archives Service Center, for help in analyzing the photograph.  I contacted him through his question and answer communication link on the Archives Service Center webpage inquiring about more information on my specific picture. He quickly got back to me, pointing me towards three different books at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library.  These books were references about black steelworker history and within these references were sections about the living conditions that could help me better understand my picture of the black bunkhouse in Braddock. Unfortunately, David Grinnell did not have any other specific information on the picture but his book recommendations were more than enough to help me gain perspective on the harsh living conditions of the black steelworkers during the Great Migration.

“Kracha worked from six to six, seven days a week, one week on day turn, one week on night. The constant shifting of turns made settlement into an energy-saving routine impossible; just when he was getting used to sleeping at night he had to learn to sleep during the day. At the end of each day-turn week came the long turn of twenty-four hours, when he went into the mill Sunday morning to wash, eat and sleep until five that afternoon, when he got up and returning to the mil to being his night-turn week” (Bell, 47)

My journey through the Archives was not a linear one.  I started at the Harmony Society and ended up in a black steelworker bunkhouse. Even though I never got specific information on my picture of the Braddock bunkhouse, I still learned a lot about the history of the steelworkers.   At first, I was expecting the Archives to provide specific information on each photo but when I discovered that was not the case I was still able to use the photographs, ambiguous or not, to lead me through an interesting research process.  

How People Use the Archives

In order to understand how different people use the Archives in different ways, it is important to understand Edward Soja’s Space Theory.

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Fig 2: Edward Soja’s Trialectic of Being

According to Soja, perceived space is typically seen as the physical reality. It includes buildings and objects that simply exist as they are. The actual aspects and physical components of buildings and spaces are part of perceived space. Conceived space includes the ideas one holds about a particular location, which may override the realities of the space. For example, many people picture Pittsburgh as a smoky old steel town, even today, which overrides the reality that it is a beautiful and mostly clean place to live. Finally, there is lived space, which is the post important in considering the Archives. Lived space is how one actually interacts with a space, and how that space affects them. In the case of the Archives, since there are many different categories, there are many different ways people can interact with the space.

One important way people have used the Archives’ vast material is to plan drilling, building, and fracking projects. The Archives are home to the mining maps of Western Pennsylvania, which show all the dimensions of mining sites around Pittsburgh. These maps are extremely useful when considering the safety and logistics of any projects which may be near a mining site, whether it’s still in use or not. According to a 2014 article by Jason Cato for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, this project began after a 2002 incident in which miners were trapped underground after they accidentally hit an abandoned mine shaft, which was filled with water. By knowing where mining sites are, it is less likely that a similar incident will occur, and the Archives are doing their part to help. In this case, researchers at the Archives would be experiencing it as a place where they can go to figure out the safety and logistics of their next project.

One interesting thing I learned on my trip to the Archives is that they often hold ongoing court case documents. Unsurprisingly, these documents are not able to be viewed by the general public while the case is still ongoing, but they also have older cases that have closed that can be seen by the general public. This collection would be undoubtedly interesting to anyone who is interested in law, especially since it’s not always easy to access full transcripts of court cases outside of a law school library.

Another thing the Archives have which is potentially highly beneficial for anyone whose family is from the Pittsburgh area is old censuses and employment records. By using these records, individuals have been able to begin or further research on their ancestors. The Archives have made it possible, and free, to find out more information on family members who have lived in Western Pennsylvania.

The Archives in the Digital Age

There has been a huge push in many industries in the new millennium to shift towards putting their resources online in order to make it easier for people who would like to access them. The Archives are no stranger to this task. Through their website “Historic Pittsburgh”, The Archives have made over 1,000 texts and over 30,000 images available for anyone to view online.

downtown pittsburgh 1900
Fig 3: One of the many photos in the Archives’ Digital Collection: Downtown Pittsburgh taken from the Smithfield Bridge by William H. Wolf, ca. 1890-1920.

While not anywhere near all of the Archives’ contents are published online, they are still showing dedication to making their collections more accessible to those who may not be in the area.

Another way the Archives have increased their online visibility is through their Tumblr page. Tumblr, a short-form blogging website in which posts can be easily shared, is an increasingly popular way for businesses and organizations to connect with a younger audience on social media. The Archives use their Tumblr primarily to share focused posts about various aspects of Pittsburgh’s history including bridges, buildings, women’s history, and communities. These posts are often relatively short in nature, and can be used to drum up some interest in visiting the Archives in person to learn more. They also share various personal anecdotes from their staff on how they interact with the Archives.

In a 2014 study published by the Archives Service Center regarding the impact of their digitization, specifically on Wikipedia, they found that after increasing information on Wikipedia articles to link back to their sources, there was an increase in hits to those sources. This is very significant because it shows the importance of making materials widely available: researchers were able to access quality sources they otherwise might not have thought about. This also has implications for the Archives themselves, after the Wikipedia increase, there was also an increase in email inquiries to the Archives. Although they did not record whether or not there was an increase in visitors, it is not far-fetched to imagine that this digitization can help spark interest in visiting the Archives, especially for those who may not have known about it.

Who should visit the Archives?

As mentioned before, the Archives are open to anyone, not just students. I would highly recommend the Archives to anyone with an interest in any aspect of Pittsburgh’s history. Whether it’s maps, photographs, documents, or films, they truly have something for everyone. They collect their materials from businesses, religious groups, individuals, governments, museums, and many more. Their collection is very diverse and is certainly worth checking out.

However, as mentioned before, there restrictions as to what can actually enter the reading room in order to protect these rare materials. They do have spaces where visitors can have snacks or drink, but materials are not permitted to be in these spaces. It is also probably not recommended to bring young children to the Archives, as they might not be as careful with the materials.

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Fig 4. The reading room features spacious desks, perfect for spreading various materials out.

Works Cited 

“Archives Service Center @ Pitt.” Archives Service Center @ Pitt. Web.

Batz Jr., Ben. “Urban Explorers Dare to Investigate Seldom-seen Pittsburgh Sites.” Post-Gazette. PG Publishing Co.: Pittsburgh, Sep 7, 2003. Web. Accessed Dec 1, 2016.

Bell, Thomas. Out of this Furnace. University of Pittsburgh Press: Pittsburgh, 1941. Print.

Cato, Jason. “Project Seeks to Preserve State’s Original Maps of Mines.” 01 Mar. 2014. Web.
Galloway, Ed, & Cassandra DellaCorte. “Increasing the Discoverability of Digital Collections Using Wikipedia: The Pitt Experience.” Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice [Online], 2.1 (2014): 84-96. Web. 27 Apr. 2016
Raap, Tony. “Pitt Library Plays Role in ‘Happy Birthday to You’ Lawsuit.” 23 Sept. 2015. Web.
Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-imagined Places. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996. Print.
Wolf, William H. Smithfield Street Bridge. 1890-1920. William H. Wolf Photograph Collection, Pittsburgh, PA. Historic Pittsburgh. Web.
Bell, Thomas, and David P. Demarest. Out of This Furnance. Pittsburgh: Univ of Pittsburgh Pr., 1979. Print.

Dickerson, Dennis C. Black Steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania, 1915-1950. 1978. Print.

Tate, John M., Jr. The Harmony Society at Economy Penna. 1925. Print

Gottlieb, Peter. Making Their Own Way: Southern Blacks’ Migration to Pittsburgh, 1916-30 (Blacks in the New World).U of Illinois, 1996. Print

“Who We Are.” National Urban League. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.

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