Behind the Scenes at Ghosts of DC

The work we do behind the scenes isn’t terribly difficult, but it is ridiculously time consuming, especially the longer posts in “Three Things…” or “If Walls Could Talk.” One of those can take anywhere between two hours to maybe four or five. Sometimes the investment pays off, and a ton of GoDCers read and share the post. Other times, it’s a complete dud.

Topic selection really has no proven formula, though over the life of this blog, I have come to get a good feel for what will be well-received.

The most popular and highly shared posts are almost always shorter posts with a high-resolution image or map. You guys love that stuff, and frankly so do I. Even though it takes little time to post an image with a few sentences about it, I end up killing an hour or so digging through countless other images before I settle on one to post. And, you know how it is with those photos, you can’t stop studying them.

So, if you’re interested in digging up some photos yourself, check out Shorpy for incredible high-resolution images. The images are of a quality nice enough to print and hang on your wall. Here’s a neat Google search trick if you’d like to do an advanced search of their site for D.C. images.

Another awesome source for old photographs is the Library of Congress. They have some great old (really old) photos of the White House.

On occasion, the photos will be labeled with the names of people in them. A photo on Shorpy of a woman named Ann O’Connell is perfect example of one that led to a fascinating story. Once I have a name, it’s time to start digging to see what I come up with.

The first place I check is for old U.S. Census records. Prior to this blog taking all of my free time, I used to be heavily into genealogy, researching my own family’s roots. I have a full subscription to their database and it has an unbelievable amount of information. If you are able to uncover a person you’re looking for, you’ll likely get their home address. Once you have that, you can start digging around old newspaper archives to see if anything comes up.

The primary newspaper archives we look at at the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, both on Proquest, and the Washington Times and a host of other available at the Library of Congress. You need an account for Proquest, but you can get a free one if you head down to the D.C. public library.

Both of these sites have great search features, which allow you to drill down for whatever you want. Brad asked how an “If Walls Could Talk” post comes about. That part is actually reasonably simple. Enter the address of the place you are researching and hopefully a list of articles pops up. Read through each one, see what’s interesting, and then start piecing together the building’s story in chronological order.

So, there you have it. That’s how the sausage is made at Ghosts of DC … and it is certainly a time-consuming process. Shooting for 10 posts every week and I try to finish them on the weekend, so it pretty much consumes the bulk of my weekend. But, for a history nerd like myself, this is the fun part. For every story we post, there are at least three or four that we pass over in the research process.

Thanks for emailing Brad. And thanks everyone for continuing to read the blog. Writing this brief update has made me motivated to dig up some great ones for the coming week. Stay tuned!

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

Check Also

Photo shows a man and a boy in summer straw hats happily displaying some unidentifiable papers on F Street, with the Treasury and a new electric hooded arc streetlight in the background. One of a series of scenes near Painter's office at 14th and E streets, this picture bears the hallmarks of the new "snapshot" style now made possible by the invention of the quick, hand-held Kodak: natural smiles and the movement of the ladies under the umbrella.

Photo of Man and Boy Outside Treasury in 1885

Check out this great old photo from 1885. Source: Library of Congress

  • Thanks so much for posting this! Within minutes I learned that Samuel Gompers, the founder of the AFL, used to live in my current house. So cool!

  • kevinmcd

    Excellent post! I’d wondered where you guys went for your archived news articles… awesome resources!