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Surprisingly, access is not a significant problem with city directories. You can find city directories in almost every local library in the country, though larger libraries might have a greater variety. Go first to the public library nearest the place you are researching; if you can’t travel there, telephone its reference desk. The reference librarian may be willing to photocopy the pages you need and send them to you or give you the desired information verbally. Reference staffs are quite busy, however, so a letter may be better if you’re not in a hurry.
Most libraries, historical societies, and archives at the state level have fairly extensive collections of in-state directories and may also have directories from major out-of-state cities. On the national level, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, house major collections of directories. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, has a wide variety of city directories, both in book form and on microform. Many of the original city directories that have been microformed have been discarded. Others, because of space consideration, have been relegated to high-density storage and must be retrieved for you. Only directories on microfilm are accessible through the worldwide system of LDS Family History Centers.
If you can’t travel to a state or national repository, consider employing a record searcher to search the directories for you. If you have someone do a directory search for you, be sure to specify the parameters. For instance, if you do not want all entries of the surname Smith, ask for those on a certain street, at a certain address, or with particular first names.
If you can’t locate the directory you want through any of the previously mentioned places, you may need to write the directory publishing company. The following is information on the two main directory publishing companies in business in the United States today:
- Haines & Company, Inc.
- 8050 Freedom Ave., N.W.
- North Canton, OH 44720-6985
- Phone: (800) 843-8452
- Fax: (330) 494-5862
- Hill-Donnelly Information Services
- (Hill Donnelly Cross Reference Directories)
- 10126 Windhorts Rd.
- Tampa, FL 33619
- Phone: (813) 832-1600
- Fax: (813) 832-1694
Gale Research’s City and State Directories in Print lists the cities that the Haines and Hill-Donnelly directories cover in a special subject index under “Cross-Reference Directories.” R. L. Polk directories are also listed under “Cross-Reference Directories” in the subject index but simply as “Polk’s City Directories [name of state].” The specific cities Polk publishes are listed under “Polk’s City Directories’’ in each state section, not under the name of the city itself. These companies may have directory libraries for their own publications dating back several years, and R. L. Polk has branch offices in many cities. To find the nearest branch office that may have directories of interest, call the main office listed previously. These companies probably do not have copies of directories published by other, now defunct, companies. Fortunately for researchers, the older directories of many American cities are available in microform through the efforts of Research Publications (now a division of Primary Source Microfilm), which completed the first part of a five-segment project early in 1967 by recording on microfiche city directories through 1860 listed in Spear’s bibliography.
SEGMENT I, consisting of 6,292 microfiche, encompassed the pre-1861 collection of directories at the American Antiquarian Society, which contains almost two-thirds of Spear’s titles. Almost one hundred libraries contributed one or more additional directories to complete the microfiching of Spear’s bibliography. Of Spear’s almost 1,600 titles, all but forty-five were microfilmed, a completion rate of better than ninety-seven percent. SEGMENT II, consisting of 372 reels of microfilm, covers the years 1861 to 1881. To keep the project manageable, it was limited to the fifty largest cities of the period, with some others added for regional representation. Research Publications used the collection of the American Antiquarian Society, created its own bibliography, and arranged for microfilming.
SEGMENT III, consisting of 746 microfilm reels, covers the same cities and uses the same format but extends coverage from 1882 to 1901. The editors note that “during the period included, and running through the years covered by Segment 3, the city directories were printed on very poor paper. Many of the directories are literally falling to pieces. The microfilm collection will insure continued availability and access to this important research source.”
Supplements to Segment III are currently being published in units of twenty-five reels each as previously unavailable directories are located. There have been twenty-six units of twenty-five reels added since the completion of Segment III.
SEGMENT IV, consisting of eighty-seven units of fifty reels each, includes directories for fifty-three cities for the years 1902 to 1935. As cities such as New York grew more populous, the frequency with which directories were published diminished, so directory representation may not be complete for every year in this segment. The filming of Segment IV is still in process.
SEGMENT V, consisting of thirty-two units of fifty reels each, covers the years 1936 to 1965, is still in the process of being microfilmed.
These microform reproductions are available for purchase individually or in segments. The Library of Congress has the entire set, while state and local libraries may choose only to purchase directories of interest in their areas. The Family History Library has most of Segment I (those directories that it didn’t already have in its collection) and almost all of Segments II, III, and IV in its collection.
You can view a catalog of the microform directories, both those completed and those in process, via the Primary Source Microfilm homepage.
Two finding aids specifically designed for genealogists seeking information in nineteenth-century directories have been published volume ten of Gale Research’s Genealogy and Local History Series, Nathan C. Parker, Personal Name Index to the 1856 City Directories of California, and in volume thirteen, Elsie L. Sopp, Personal Name Index to the 1856 City Directories of Iowa. These indexes can be used in conjunction with the Research Publications microfiche for the pre-1861 period.
Locating City Directories Online
Not surprisingly, a significant number of city directories are available on the Internet. There are two basic formats. Some city directories have been digitized and are viewable in the same way as an original paper or microfilm version. Many more have been transcribed. Transcribed directories could contain transcription errors but are easier to search.
Examples of digitized directories can be found at:
In the late 1990s, Primary Source Media (now Primary Source Microfilm) announced an ambitious plan called “City Directories Online.” By late 1999, it was intended that 300,000 pages of city directories covering the years would be published (imaged) on the Web with full text searching. Access was by subscription on a “pay-for-use” basis. Unfortunately, this project was discontinued as of 31 December 2001, and visitors to that site are now directed to http://www.galegroup.com/psm/.
Many transcribed city directories can be found at Ancestry.com under the subject “Directories and Member Lists.” Most of the directories transcribed on Ancestry.com are from the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries and cover a wide range of cities. A special effort was made to transcribe circa 1890 directories as a substitute for the lost 1890 census. The list of transcribed directories on Ancestry.com is continually growing. In a 1999 article in the Ancestry Daily News, Brian G. Anderson listed only six directories on the website. By the end of 2005, the site had thousands. The search engine on Ancestry.com allows for the entire directories database to be searched for one name.
Other transcribed city directories can be found under the subject “City Directories” at CyndisList.com. Cyndi’s List gives not only links to specific transcribed city directories but also links to sites detailing the location of original city directories in libraries and historical societies, as well as links to articles and general information resources about directories.
Telephone directories are classic examples of publications made of low-quality paper for short-term use. Whether obsolete telephone directories are retained by local and state libraries may depend on space considerations and the physical condition of the older directories. The Library of Congress has some telephone directories.
Business directories can be found in most of the repositories mentioned previously. Both the Library of Congress and the Family History Library have such directories, but the collection of the Library of Congress is more comprehensive. A list of the directories in the Library of Congress as of 1931 was printed in Colleen Neal’s Lest We Forget: A Guide to Genealogical Research in the Nation’s Capital. These business directories were often published by the same companies that published city directories, so private directory libraries should also be consulted.
Every law library should have at least one current law directory. How many—if any—back issues are kept and for how far back depends on the individual library and its storage capabilities. Even if the library has kept old directories, access to them may be limited. Large public libraries often keep back issues for reference. You might also find law directories through local and state bar associations. Again, whether they have back issues may depend on their space limitations. The American Bar Association has not kept past directories since 1981.
The Library of Congress has a complete set of the Martindale-Hubbell Directory from 1931 on. The library has only selected copies of earlier directories, the earliest Hubbell directory being from 1871 and the earliest Martindale-Hubbell directory being from 1885.
The publishing companies themselves maintain libraries, but access is a problem. The best approach is a specific written request. The addresses of the two oldest law list compilers are as follows:
- Martindale-Hubbell, Inc.
- Reed Reference Publishing
- 121 Chanlon Rd
- New Providence, NJ 07974-1541
- Phone: (908) 464-6800
- Campbell’s List, Inc.
- P.O. Box 428
- Maitland, FL 32751
- Phone: (800) 249-6934, (407) 644-8298, (407) 644-3376
- Fax: 407-740-6494
Both websites contain an online directory of current lawyers.
Medical school libraries should have the most current edition of the American Medical Directory readily available. Your access to back issues may depend on the individual library’s policy. For example, the Eccles Health Science Library at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City, Utah, keeps a complete collection of the directory available to the general public. Local and state medical associations may also maintain old directories, including those published on a regional level.
R. L. Polk published a Medical and Surgical Register of the United States and Canada, which was in its fifth edition by 1898. You may have a hard time finding early issues of this register; the Library of Congress does not seem to have any.
The Library of Congress maintains a complete collection of the American Medical Directory. If you can’t get to a large medical library, consider contacting the American Medical Association, which publishes the directory. For a small fee, its library and archive will also provide biographical details available from its database on physicians from 1878 to 1969. Contact
- AMA Library and Archives
- P.O. Box 109050
- Chicago, IL 60610-9050
- Phone: (312) 464-5000
- Fax: (312) 645-4184
This database, essentially a card index, is now on 237 reels of microfilm at the Family History Library and can be found as “Deceased American Physicians, 1864–1970” under the subject “United States—Occupations.”
Civil and Military Service Directories
According to an 1816 act of Congress providing for a biennial register of the civil and military service of the United States, twenty-five copies of the register were to be deposited in the Library of Congress. In 1851, a provision was added that allowed for a copy to be sent to the secretary of state of each state. Presumably, the Library of Congress and state libraries and archives contain copies today.
The Library of Congress has apparently transferred the older registers to the National Archives, but you should check both repositories. State libraries and archives may not have kept the registers from all of the years, so there may be gaps. States in the former Confederacy may not have copies of the registers for 1861 to 1865.
The Library of Congress and local and state archives will probably have some directories relevant to their areas of interest. If you can find a publisher of pre-twentieth-century professional directories that is still in business today, see if it maintains a directory library. Directories in Print can aid in this task. The addresses of the publishers of the two professional directories of special interest to genealogists are as follows:
- The American Blue Book of Funeral Directors
- Kates-Boylston Publications/UCG
- 1255 Route 70, Suite 31-S,
- Lakewood, NJ 08701
- Phone: (800) 500-4585
- Fax: (732) 901-8650
- American Cemetery Association Membership Directory and Buyer’s Guide
- (Originally published by American Cemetery Association; the organization changed its name to the International :Cemetery and Funeral Association)
- 1895 Preston White Drive, Suite 220
- Reston, VA 20191
- Phone: (703) 391-8400; (800) 645-7700
- Fax: (703) 391-8416
- > (the website has an online directory of members)
Access is the major problem in locating religious directories. Common designations such as “Baptist” and “Methodist” may comprise several distinct denominations. You will therefore need to research the ancestor’s exact religion to find the appropriate directory. Also, the denomination as it existed in the nineteenth century may be defunct or have merged with another group. In such a case, lack of a modern directory showing church locations may limit your access to the original records.
The best way to determine the existence and location of a directory for the denomination of interest is to look for a church archive for the particular denomination. Such archives may have back issues of these directories, as well as information on where to find the records of modern churches. Also, check the seminary or training college libraries for the denomination.
Among public repositories, check the Library of Congress, state and local libraries, and general university libraries (particularly those that were once denominational), but don’t stop there. The Library of Congress, for example, has The Official Catholic Directory only as early as 1886, although the directory has been published since 1817. In such a case, contact the publisher:
- P.J. Kenedy and Sons
- Reed Reference Publishing
- 121 Chanlon Road
- New Providence, NJ 07974
- Phone: (800) 521-8110
Post Office Directories
Most research libraries should have the Gale Research reprint of The Street Directory of the Principal Cities of the United States...to April 1908, available in their reference sections. The Library of Congress and the Family History Library have copies. The Library of Congress should also have other back issues of post office directories.
Comprehensiveness of Directories
When consulting any directory, keep in mind why it was compiled. If an individual was not at home when the city directory agent called, his or her name may not appear for that particular year. Even today, the general population must cooperate to put together a city directory. The agent or compiler usually leaves a notice on the door if the resident is not home, and not everyone will take the time or trouble to respond. The compiler may not follow up if it is too costly. Methods in the nineteenth century may have been considerably more primitive. Business and professional directories may have required a fee for inclusion. If you can’t find an ancestor in the alphabetical sequence of a directory, be sure to check the beginning for listings received too late to be included.
City directories, however, seem to lack the most for their subject matter, if only for their scope. In some cities, early directories were published in the same year by competing companies, and they did not always include the same people. If an ancestor is not listed in a directory but should be, check for transpositions of letters —Tohmson instead of Thomson, for example. Names may also be spelled differently. Early New York City directories often contained lists of variant name spellings. Pittsburgh city directories listed the names Meyers, Meyer, Myers, and Myer together until the 1860s. Some early directories grouped names with the same initial letter but did not list them in strict alphabetical sequence. Consider the type style when using early directories, particularly those from the eighteenth century. Don’t misread the old double-ess character (ƒ) as f.
The date on the title page of a directory is usually that of publication and does not necessarily indicate when the information was compiled. Often, a directory will state that it is for the “year ending” on a particular day. Remember that many city dwellers rented rather than owned their residences and may not have stayed at one address for long; this fact does have an impact on using the directory for census searches (see discussion later in the chapter). While it refers to a non-urban area, the following excerpt from the foreword to the Alaska Directory and Gazetteer for 1934–1935 helps to explain the difficulties of listing people constantly on the move:
- This Second Biennial Edition of the Alaska Directory and Gazetteer represents a complete new compilation of the residents and business houses of the Territory of Alaska . . . Extreme care has been taken to secure the most complete and accurate information possible but the publishers cannot assume responsibility for any accuracies [sic] or omissions. A frontier country, one-fifth the size of the United States, with its approximately 29,000 white population distributed among more than 400 widely scattered towns and settlements, present[s] difficulties which subscribers will appreciate. The shift of population from point to point in the Territory by seasonal occupation and winter vacationing in the States offer further problems of reporting proper locations of many residents. In order to meet these situations, the issuing of supplements from time to time prior to publication of the next directory proper will be continued. Also, all purchasers are entitled to two years reference, inquiry and tracing service.
- ↑ Alaska Directory and Gazetteer 1934–1935 (Seattle: Alaska Directory Co., 1935), foreword.