City Directories GenGuide

How to Use City Directories

A Word of Caution

Where to Find City Directories

City directories are a valuable yet often underutilized resource in genealogy research. They can provide solid clues for ancestor tracking and contain information about the community in which your ancestors lived. The first city directories began to appear in American cities in the late 1700s and became commonplace by the end of the nineteenth century when rural citizens as well as urbanites had their own directories. City directories were created primarily for the business community to help businesses learn about and contact their customer base and to advertise.

The amount of detail in city directories can vary between publishers and locales. Details can vary between publication years of a single city’s directory. Regardless, each city directory attempted to gather the names of all inhabitants of a city, town, or rural jurisdiction. Researching city directories enables a genealogist to make comparisons between successive editions and track those elusive ancestors more frequently than census enumerations allow.


How to Use City Directories

  • City directories can be used to fill in the gaps between census years by showing the movement of families during the ten-year gap between census enumerations.
  • Because city directories were commonplace at the end of the nineteenth century, they can be used to fill in the gap between the 1880 and 1900 federal censuses due to the missing 1890 federal census in most areas.
  • City directories often provide employment information by indicating each employed person’s job title and address of employment.
  • City directories provide street addresses of citizens living in a town or city. Many census enumerators omitted noting street names and house numbers on the 1900 and 1910 federal census forms. City directories can fill in this missing information.
  • Directories give historical information about the community in which your ancestor lived. Many city directories have information about churches, civic organizations, government entities, and a directory of businesses. This data is usually located in the back of the directory and can provide valuable background and social history information.
  • You might be able to close in on a death date when you find spouses together in one year’s city directory and the wife listed the following year as a widow.
  • A city directory can confirm your ancestor was in a particular place at a particular time.
  • By examining chronological city directories, you can close in on an estimated immigration date.
  • City directories can help you locate the nearest church, school, or cemetery to your ancestor’s home.
  • Many city directories have maps of the towns and surrounding areas. Directories for large cities might contain ward maps. Don’t overlook the possibility of this extant information in the city directory in your hands.
  • Unlike census enumerations, names are listed in alphabetical order in city directories. For that reason, city directories have not been indexed, nor do they need to be.
  • If you can’t find your ancestor in a city directory, don’t forget to check the back of the directory for a listing of those names received too late for inclusion in the alphabetical listing.
  • Abbreviations are used in city directories to save space, and therefore printing costs. Be sure to refer to the legend that accompanies the city directory so you will know what all those abbreviations mean.


A Word of Caution

As with any compilation resource, city directories should be used with caution. Information contained within their pages must be analyzed and scrutinized against other sources. A few points to keep in mind when using city directories:

  • Be sure to read the publisher’s introduction. There can be valuable information there about how data was gathered for the tome, who was included and who was not, the timing of the polling of the citizens, and when the next issue might appear.
  • Accuracy may be an issue. The source of data might be door-to-door solicitation or the information may have been retrieved from voter registration rolls.
  • The year on the cover of city directories is most often the publication date, which is not necessarily the year the information was collected. Keep in mind that a city directory carrying a date of 1896 was most likely assembled during the previous year (1895). Try to determine the date the community was canvassed for the city directory you are examining.


Where to Find City Directories

City directories may be found in a variety of repositories. Many original copies of city directories have weathered the years and can be found in local repositories in your research area. Ideally, the city directories for your research area have been microfilmed. More and more digitized images are appearing on the Internet making them more accessible than in the past.

Before searching for city directories in your research area, you might want to first determine if one existed for the area. City Directories of the United States of America attempts to identify all printed, microfilmed, and online directories and their repositories. This website will answer these questions: Does a directory exist for a locality? If it does, where can it be found? The website is searchable by state. If you can’t find a city directory for the town or rural jurisdiction where your ancestors lived, try looking to the nearest large municipality. Many times, directories for large cities reached well into the surrounding rural communities.

Libraries: Many public and academic libraries hold local city directories in their collections. To find a library in your research locality, the library locator page on the Internet Public Library website is an excellent starting point. There are several links on this web page that will allow you to search for libraries in specific geographic locations. After you locate a library, check the online catalog to identify the extent of the library’s holdings. You might also contact the library directly to ask if they have city directories in their holdings. Not all libraries catalog all items. And don’t overlook college and university libraries. Many of these academic libraries have a Special Collections department with local history resources.

Heritage Quest Online: Access to HeritageQuest Online is available through many public libraries. Phone your local public library, or check out their website, to see if they provide access to this great resource. You will likely be able to access the collection with your current library card. HeritageQuest Online provides access to the city directories collection on Ancestry. And best of all, it’s free through your local public library.

Internet Archive: The Internet Archive has thousands of digitized city directories that can be viewed, for free, online. To find a city directory for the research area you are interest in, type the following into the Internet Archive search box: “city state city directory” replacing “city” with the city or town you are researching and “state” with the appropriate state. Be sure to type the full name of the state and not the postal code or an abbreviation.

Societies: Genealogical and historical societies may have city directories or may be able to point you to a repository that holds physical copies or microform of that area’s directories. To locate a genealogical or historical society in your research area, visit the state pages at the US GenWeb Project. Many state pages include a list of societies with contact information and links to their websites. You may also search the Internet for a genealogical society by entering the local jurisdiction (town, city, or county) followed by the words “genealogical society” or “genealogy society” in the search engine box.

Cyndi’s List: The City Directories section at Cyndi’s List has links to general information about city directories, to libraries with city directories in their collections, and to digitized images of city directories on the Internet. Cyndi’s List is definitely worth a visit.

Library of Congress: A list of city directories held by the Library of Congress is searchable by state and contains references to thousands of city directories for all fifty states. This site is a valuable resource to determine if a city directory does indeed exist for your research area. Unfortunately, the city directories at the Library of Congress are not available through interlibrary loan and can only be viewed on-site in the library’s Microform Reading Room. The staff of the Library of Congress is unable to perform searches; however, they will provide a list of freelance researchers, upon request.

Fold3: Fold3 has a limited number of city directories for nearly two dozen states and the District of Columbia. Although you can search the site to determine if they have images of city directories in your research area, a paid subscription is required to view the pages.

Internet: Many digitized city directories are available on the Internet. Simply go to your favorite search engine and type the following phrase, replacing the name of your city or town for the word “city” and “state” with the full name of the appropriate state in the search string: city state directory. Try it. You might get lucky. The following online city directories were found using this strategy:

Boston City Directories

McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directories

Trenton, New Jersey, City Directories, 1844, 1859, 1877, 1881, 1882, 1900, 1920

North Carolina City Directories

Ohio City Directories



updated July 2017