Often we fall into the trap of limiting the usefulness of a resource to answering a single research question. It is common to fall into this trap when researching with city directories because often we use them to find a specific piece of information and don't realize the types of information that we're missing.
City directories offer us the ability to search an alphabetical list of people living in a given community. While directories of this sort are taken in towns of all sizes, it is usually the larger cities where such directories are of the most use to genealogists.
Look beyond the names of the residents.
City Directory Uses
City directories offer us a method of locating individuals in a city that is not indexed in the census. When combining the street address with other resources, a researcher can narrow down the number of pages that will need to be searched in the census for that family.
Basically, city directories list names and occupations of city residents. Many researchers, however, bypass the other useful information found in other sections of the city directories.
One of the most often overlooked sections of a city directory is the listing of societies and other groups that meet regularly in the city, usually in a permanent structure owned by the group. This is the section that will give you information about the various fraternal organizations that met, including their lodge number. You will learn what religions had chapels in the city, and where those chapels were located.
When you combine this information with the street address for your ancestor, you can begin to learn what lodge your ancestor may have belonged to. You can discern which of the four Catholic churches was most likely the parish of your ancestor. Such information is often paramount to going further with your ancestor's religious or fraternal association research.
The alphabetical list of the streets themselves is generally ignored, and yet this is the information that gives you an idea as to the cross streets, and where on the main street these cross streets appear. Armed with this and the address of your ancestors, you can determine which block of the street your ancestor was living on. This information is important if you must turn your attention to the Enumeration District Descriptions released by the federal government.
Other Great Finds
Once in while you will find other information included in the city directory. One city I researched would include the births, marriages and deaths for the prior year in each annual directory.
A unique issue that has been found in the 1907 city directory for Los Angeles was the segregation of ethnic groups such as the French, Germans, and Italian. If your ancestor was of an ethnic origin, it is likely that he was not listed within the main alphabetical list of residents, but in the separate lists based on ethnicity.
The next time you find yourself working in city directories, don't just head straight for the alphabetical listing of the inhabitants of the city. Take some time and really explore the directory to see what else you can learn about the town in which your ancestor lived.
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 an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.