For anyone researching ancestors in a city or larger community, standard genealogical resources often fall short. Newspapers generally mention only the influential, interesting or most newsworthy residents. Land records offer little help when researching renters. Census records don't tell the stories of individuals who moved multiple times between census years.
Cities, however, offer an invaluable historical and genealogical resource not available to those of us researching rural ancestors — namely, city directories. City directories offer anyone conducting family history research in a city or large town a nearly annual census of city residents, as well as a window into the community in which they lived. Genealogists all know the value of placing an ancestor in a particular time and place, but city directories can also be used to follow an individual's occupation, place of employment, and place of residence, as well as potentially identify life events such as marriages and deaths. Looking beyond the names of your ancestors, city directories also provide invaluable insight into your ancestor's community, often including sections on neighborhood churches, cemeteries, and hospitals, plus organizations, clubs, associations, and societies.
Information Often Found in City Directories
- Name and occupation of head of household (often men and female widows; later single employed females)
- Name of spouse (often in parentheses following name of husband; mid to late 19th century)
- Sometimes the names of children, often only those employed outside the home
- Street name and house number of residence
- Work address (if employed outside the home)
Tips for Research in City Directories
Abbreviations were often used in city directories to save printing space and costs. Locate (and make a copy) of this list of abbreviations, usually located near the front of the directory, to learn that "n" Fox St. indicates "near" Fox St., or that "r" means "resides" or, alternatively, "rents." Properly translating the abbreviations used in a city directory is essential for correctly interpreting the information it contains.
Don't miss the late listing of names received too late for inclusion in the alphabetical portion, generally located just before or after the alphabetical list of residents. This may include people who had recently moved to the area (including those moving within the city limits), as well as individuals the canvasser missed on his initial visit.
What if I Can't Find My Ancestor?
Just who was included in a city directory was up to the discretion of that directory's publisher, and often varied from city to city, or over time. Generally, the earlier the directory, the less information it contains. The earliest directories may list only people of higher status, but directory publishers soon made the attempt to include everyone. Even then, however, not everyone was listed. Sometimes certain parts of town weren’t covered. Inclusion in a city directory was also voluntary (unlike a census), so some people may have chosen not to participate, or were missed because they weren't home when the agents came calling.
Make sure you have checked every available city directory for the time period when your ancestors were living in the area. People overlooked in one directory may be included in the next. Names were also often misspelled or standardized, so be sure to check name variations. If you can locate a street address for your family from a census, vital, or other record, then many directories also offer a street index.
Where to Find City DirectoriesOriginal and microfilmed city directories can be found in a variety of repositories, and an increasing number are being digitized and made available online. Many may be available either in original format or on microfilm in the library or historical society that covers that particular locality. Many state libraries and historical societies have large city directory collections as well. Major research libraries and archives such as the Library of Congress, Family History Library, and American Antiquarian Society also maintain large collections of microfilmed city directories, for locations across the United States.
Over 12,000 city directories for cities across the United States, most from the collection of the Library of Congress, have been microfilmed by Primary Source Media as City Directories of the United States. Their online collection guide lists the cities and directory years included in the collection. The Family History Library Catalog also lists a large collection of city directories, most of which can be borrowed on microfilm for viewing at your local Family History Center.