For decades, if you wanted to learn about slavery in America, you needed to rely on experts in the field. Now, the New York Historical Society has put several collections of its most important slavery-related documents online, allowing anyone to see them, as well as transcriptions of these priceless originals.

“With this collection, you really don’t have to rely on other people for interpretation,” said Henry Raine, head of library technical services for the Historical Society, in a telephone interview. More than 12,000 pages of documents from 14 distinct collections are now online–the culmination of a multi-year effort made possible by a government grant.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Jean Ashton, the executive vice president and library director of the Historical Society, told the AmNews. “We want people to see and understand the documents not as a separate collection, but as an important part of American history.

With its groundbreaking show about slavery in New York, the Historical Society has made great strides in helping New Yorkers understand the role that America’s “peculiar institution” played in the life of the city, as well as how New York banks and citizens helped promote and abolish slavery in America.

The documents that have been put online cover a vast range, from the minutes of the New York Manumission Society, which was founded in 1785, to records from the New York African Free School, which was founded to educate African-Americans in the early 19th century, when slavery was still very much the law of the land. Also included is the diary of a freed slave who lived in Fishkill, N.Y.

Visitors not only have access to precise transcripts of these rare documents–which are, in some cases, hundreds of years old–but to high quality scans of the originals. Because of the fragility of some of the documents, the process took many years and a great deal of expertise to ensure they were not damaged during the process.

Ashton called the new digital archive ” a valuable resource for educators,” and she hopes that the website will inspire people to come to the Historical Society to see the originals in person.

Understanding the past is crucial to our understanding of the present, and this online collection makes it easier than ever for Americans of all colors to take a first-hand look into our shared past.

The collections are available online at You can also see these documents in person, no appointment necessary, at the library of the New York Historical Society, located at 170 Central Park West, between 76th and 77th streets. For more information, call (212) 873-3400.