Types of directories
There are many different types of directories, but all of them fall into two categories: address directories and group directories. An area's address directory includes everyone in that area with an address. Group directories include specific groups of people such as doctors, lawyers, or military personnel. The best thing to do before you even start to look for an ancestor in a directory is to consult the Directory of Directories, by James A. Ethridge. You can find this book in most major libraries. It can help you find a directory that may have exactly what you are looking for.
We are most familiar with the common telephone directory. This directory is quite helpful in locating living relatives or possible relatives with the same surname or a similar surname. The phone company in each city in the United States publishes a directory of everyone in that area who has a phone number. Plus, you can locate relatives or possible relatives in most countries outside the United States by using published phone directories of foreign cities. Many larger libraries have foreign telephone directories.
When the telephone was invented in 1876, only 3 people had telephones. For that reason, early telephone directories may not be very helpful in locating an ancestor. A better place to look for ancestors from earlier time periods is in city directories. These directories can date all the way back to the early nineteenth century.
City directories can be most helpful when you are trying to locate an ancestor in the census, but cannot locate that person in a census index. (This may be because census indexes after 1860 are somewhat incomplete.) A city directory can often guide you to the correct census year. Many people also use city directories to guide them to death and probate records, naturalization records, land records, and church records. In fact, city directories often identify the name of the clergyman who officiated at a wedding ceremony. This information can lead you straight to the actual church records.
In addition to city directories and telephone directories, there are also professional directories, civil and military service directories, religious directories, college-related directories, and county and regional business directories.
Professional directories include directories for people such as doctors and lawyers. They will most often include information relating to that individual's history in the profession, as well as other biographical information. Professional directories will enable you to learn more about an individual's professional career, help you locate a person in time, and may even lead you to other records to search.
Civil and military service directories exist for civil, military, and naval officers and agents of the U.S. They most often contain information such as name, office, pay, place of birth, place of residence, and the state from which the person was appointed. There are also other more detailed registers for both military and naval officers. Like professional directories, civil and military service directories can lead you to sources that will provide you with more information about the person you are researching.
Religious directories, as well as many other directories, have gone through their share of change and development. In a modern sense, these directories list at least the name of the church and its pastor. Depending on the denomination, you will find varying amounts of information. At best, a religious directory can tell you the name of the place where your ancestor worshipped, enabling you to locate other more important religious records.
College directories include both university alumni directories and fraternity directories. Alumni directories contain a listing of individuals who attended a particular university, the year that they graduated, and their degree. The kind of information available in fraternity directories can vary quite a bit. You may find only the addresses of various fraternal branches, or you could find the dates of membership or birth and death dates. If you can find information about your ancestor in one of these directories, you may be able to locate other records within these organizations which can provide insight into the life of your ancestor.
Business directories were usually organized by county, and depending on the time period, vary in the amount of information they contain. Often, you'll find advertisements for certain businesses in these directories. They might also contain information such as dates and places of birth, dates of marriage, names of children, length of residence in the town, and other valuable information.
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