Finding Your Stories: City Directories

City directories are one of the most useful (and fun) sources that have helped me in my search. If your research subject lived in a city of any size, it's worth checking to see if city directories are available.

To learn what information might be available, listen to this episode of How to Find Estelle, or consult the transcript below.

How to Find Estelle: City Directories (Transcript)

[00:00:01] Narrator: Estelle True-Nell was a remarkable woman. Our modern era has forgotten her, and I think that's too bad.

[00:00:12] Narrator: I'd like to introduce you to her amazing life, one career at a time. Along the way, we might pick up a tip or two for ourselves, as we learn How to Be Estelle.

[00:00:25] Narrator: I have had so much fun tracking down Estelle and her family. In this episode, we'll focus on How to Find Estelle (or in your case, how to find the people, places, and topics that interest you).

Why search city directories?

[00:00:39] Narrator: We typically look for people in vital records and in the census, but those only represent specific points in time. There are other sources, like city directories, that can help us fill in the years in between.

What will you find?

[00:00:53] Narrator: In a city directory, in addition to finding some confirmation that your subject was in that place at that time, you'll find things like:

[00:01:01] Narrator: A spouse's name. Not all do, but some directories (especially the later ones) will list a spouse's name in parentheses alongside the head of the household.

[00:01:10] Narrator: Some will tell whether your subject is a widow. Some directory entries will list a woman's name and then identify her as a widow and list her spouse's name (so, Ada Young, widow of Charles). That can be especially helpful when you're trying to figure out a death date.

[00:01:25] Narrator: Of course, you'll find addresses. Many directories list both a business and a home address. When that's the case, you can use something like Google Maps to plot out your person's route from home to work or see what other landmarks might have been in their area at that time.

[00:01:41] Narrator: Sometimes you'll find an occupation listed. You might be able to tell whether the person you're researching was a saleslady, an artist, a laborer, or a teacher.

[00:01:51] Narrator: As you're looking at city directories, in addition to the list of names, you also want to see if there's a business section. If you know that your ancestor worked in a grocery store, you might see if you can find it in the business section and then see who their competitors were.

[00:02:05] Narrator: It's also worth checking to see if there is a street-by-street directory section. If you can look up your subject's address, you might learn who their neighbors were.

[00:02:14] Narrator: While you're browsing, be sure to look up and down the listing of names to see if others with the same last name are listed. Are they all in the same household or in the same neighborhood? If you can search a digital copy of the directory, you might try searching for their address, too. Just be aware of how the directory lists the address -- they often abbreviate the street names, so you'll want to search for the address however it is spelled in the directory.

Documenting what you find

[00:02:37] Narrator: When I'm searching in city directories, I make sure to grab a picture of the title page and the abbreviations page at the front of the book. That way, I have basic information for my resources list, and I can easily look back to see what the codes in the listings I'm capturing mean.

Where do you find city directories?

[00:02:52] Narrator: So, where do you find city directories? Happily, we have several possibilities.

[00:03:00] Narrator: For major U.S. cities, I recommend checking Ancestry's U.S. City Directories collection. You can keyword search and browse. Many libraries offer access to Ancestry, so you don't necessarily have to have a subscription of your own.

[00:03:12] Narrator: FamilySearch also has a collection of city directories you can browse and search. You'll need to set up an account, but it's free. You can search the FamilySearch catalog by city and then see what directories are available.

[00:03:25] Narrator: It's also worth checking Google. A search like your "city name" and the words "city directory" (in quotes) can lead you to other online collections.

[00:03:35] Narrator: Definitely take a look at the library in your subject's town. Some libraries have put early city directories from their collections on their websites. The New York Public Library -- one of my personal favorites -- has digitized an amazing collection of early New York City directories.

[00:03:52] Narrator: Another site that will point you to library resources is the Digital Public Library of America. It links out to collections at many different locations. You might be surprised which libraries hold directories for the cities you want.

[00:04:05] Narrator: HathiTrust Digital Library and the Internet Archive are other free sites to check for city directories online.

[00:04:12] Narrator: You may also want to see if your local library provides access to the fee-based sites MyHeritage and Fold3. Both of those offer collections of city directories, too.

[00:04:23] Narrator: I'll have links to all of these on the page for this episode at

Finding analog directory resources

[00:04:29] Narrator: Now, you and I know that not everything is online. It's worth checking with the local library and genealogical or historical society in the area you're researching to see what's available there. You might find a friendly volunteer who can check hardcopy directories for you for a small fee or donation.

[00:04:45] Narrator: Good luck with your research and join me next time as we learn How to Be Estelle.