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Overheard in GenForum: Locating City Directories
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

April 27, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Where do you find city directories? I am interested in Bristol PA, the years between 1910 and 1920. Would I go to the local historical society? The city hall itself? Never researched this area before. Please help. -- Judy

A: City directories can be a major resource when working with ancestors in a large city. They can help us to pin point the exact locality of our ancestor and his profession. There are times that tracing an ancestor through the city directory can help to fill in the other years between the census. Even those of us who have used city directories may not have been aware of all the benefits of this resource.

Many of us overlook the other valuable information included in those yearly city directories. Once you have determined the addresses of your ancestors, you should look further through the city directory to see what else it offers.

City directories can be a major resource when working with ancestors in a large city.

Where Do You Find Them?

More recent city directories may be located in local public libraries. In fact, if you visit any public library you will find at least the most recent city directory for that town. However, what do you do when looking for older city directories?

One of the first places to begin your search is the Family History Library. Through an ongoing project, city directories have been microfilmed for many years. These microfilms are available through the Family History Library.

Another valuable archive for city directories is the state library or the state archives. Often these groups have established collections of newspapers and similar resources such as city directories. The best way to find out what they have is to visit their web site. For most states, the state archive and state library have put up a web site.

Other Information Found

Usually, city directories will have maps showing the divisions of the city, such as precincts or wards. This information can be very important to you. By determining what ward or precinct your ancestor's residence falls in, you can narrow searches in the unindexed census records.

The maps also offer you a visual approach to the actual locations of your ancestors in regards to each other. While you may have a vague concept from where they appear in the census, the map will show you definitively how close to each other they are.

However, some city directories have another section where the streets are listed alphabetically and thereunder the house numbers and then the name of the residence. These can be useful in trying to determine who lived in a given home prior to when your ancestor moved in. You never know when that name may become important in your research.

Other Uses

Another use of the city directories that few people consider is in regards to the addresses of business and churches. When seeing where the family lived in retrospect to the church, sometimes you can get an idea of the best church to contact for records. After all, we've all experienced the frustration of contacting a religious archive only to be told that we need to know the name of the church. Turning to the city directory, you might be able to determine the name of the church your ancestors were most likely to attend.

In Conclusion

As you begin working with the city directories, take a moment to see what else the directory offers. One of my favorite aspects to the city directories is in the ads. There have been a few times that I discovered ads for services offered by my ancestors. There are many ways in which city directories can be of help, above and beyond searching the alphabetical listing of names.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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