City Directories are a Valuable Resource

City directories are a valuable resource:  content by

  • Apr 30, 2017

For family researchers, city directories contain an abundance of information that virtually can’t be found anywhere else in a single source. This is, of course, if you’re lucky enough to be looking for an ancestor who lived in a city, town or county that published these directories. The existence of annual or even periodically published directories for a particular location can assist the genealogist in answering many questions. It can be as valuable, if not more so, that a federal census.

City directories are divided into a number of different sections, and each of these contains potentially valuable information.

1) Miscellaneous information. This section lists things about the city and what public life was like at that time. Listed are such things as the locations of hospitals, schools, churches, libraries, parks, cemeteries, fire departments and fire alarm boxes, post offices and postal routes and delivery schedules, plus information on government divisions (city, county, township, ward, and courts), newspapers, public transportation routes, labor organizations and clubs and societies.

2) Ads bought by local businesses. Did your ancestor place one of these? It’s always interesting to find one.

3) Alphabetical listing of persons, businesses and public entities. Entries in a city directory often record the main householder’s name, spouse’s name (if a woman householder is a widow it may list her widowed status along with the deceased husband’s name), the occupations of the listed householders, the places where they worked, the home address and whether the home is owned or rented. The names of children over 18 years of age are often listed in more recent directories as well as the phone number for the household.

4) Classified business directory. This section alphabetically lists classifications of businesses, such as “Boots and Shoes,” “Cigar Stores” or “Saloons,” and then lists all of the local businesses in that category. It’s good to cross-check your ancestor in this section if he/she owned a business. At the very least, this will give you the location and address of the business.

5) Rural directory for the area surrounding the town. This may tabulate all householders on a particular rural route – enumerating name, address, occupation and whether home is owned or rented. It may also list householders from a nearby town, community or settlement. For example, the Terre Haute city directories list the residents of Taylorville and West Terre Haute in a separate section.

6) A street and avenue guide for the city, listing successive addresses down a street along with the intersecting cross streets. Each address is given with the name of the primary householder, business or public entity – or identified as “vacant” if not occupied. This is like a written-out map of the city. This section is invaluable in helping researchers to locate someone in the context of their neighborhood – providing a list of surrounding neighbors and nearby churches, schools and businesses.

7) Telephone directory, arranged by number. OK, so you’re not going to be calling up a relative using the old 5-digit phone number. But this section is interesting to browse through. It’s arranged numerically by phone number, so if you didn’t already know your relative’s phone number, you’re not going to find it here. Look under the alphabetical listing of householders for the phone number.

Local libraries are a great place to find a city directory for that particular place. A few city directories are online at Ancestry, with wide gaps in between.The Indiana State Library in Indianapolis has a good collection of city directories statewide. To plan your visit, go to and search for the Indiana town you are interested in. This will give you a listing of all directories at the ISL.


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