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Genealogy : Getting Started at The New York Public Library: City directories

A guide to getting started with genealogical research at The New York Public Library

About

New York City directory, 1850/51City directories can be used to research genealogies, biographies, and the history of the place whose residents they list. City directories first appeared in the United States in 1785, and record the names, residential and business addresses, and occupations of millions of Americans. They also record the names and addresses of churches, businesses, schools, police stations, and government offices, as well as the names of individuals associated with those institutions. City directories record the price of travel and postage, the kinds of occupations undertaken in the city, the layout of streets, and at what time the sun was predicted to rise and set. Not for nothing were early city directories often referred to as gazetteers and almanacs. Some directories record whether a women is a widow, and whether an individual listed is a person of color. City directories were precursors of the later white and yellow pages telephone directories, and most towns and cities in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries had at least one directory. In New York City, city directories were published between 1786 and 1933/34.

Access

Digitized city directories

New York City

United States and international

  • Ancestry Library Edition National and international collections of city directories, including U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995.
  • Fold3 Includes collections of directories for major US cities.

Print and microfilm

City Directories can be found the NYPL catalog using the following subject terms:

City directories:
[city] ([state]) – Directories
e.g. New York (N.Y.) – Directories, Dunkirk (N.Y.) – Directories, Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.) - Directories

Business directories:
[city] ([state]) – Commerce – Directories
e.g. New York (N.Y.) – Commerce – Directories

Elite directories: Social registers or keyword “elite directories.”

City Directories on Microfilm at NYPL

Most city directories published in the United States are available on microfiche and microfilm.

City directories, from the earliest to 1860. Compiled from the collections of nearly 100 libraries in the United States, described in  detail in Spear's Bibliography of American Directories through 1860 , and comprised of 6,292 microfiche.

City directories for most United States cities, from 1861 to 1965. Includes some business directories.

Primary Source Media has a very useful online page for searching exactly which cities and towns have microfilmed directories. Directories for smaller towns are often included / combined with bigger city and state directories: set Collection Title to City Directories, and enter the location in the keyword search box to see if a place has a city directory on microfilm.

Genealogy uses

City directories help a genealogist  locate people in a place and time. They are also useful for:

  • Searching censuses by address: an address found in a city directory can be used to generate an Enumeration District number, enabling a researcher to search a census by address.
  • Clusters of names and addresses in a city directory can be used to identify addresses in censuses pre-1870, when no address was listed.
  • Searching years between censuses: New York is often the first port of call for migrants, who may live only briefly in the city. Their brief stay might be recorded in a city directory, but not in a census.
  • Acting as a census substitute: the 1890 United States Federal census was mostly lost in a fire in the 1920s: city directories may be the only record of a person in New York in the years between 1880 and 1890..
  • Identifying a date of death: an approximate date of death might be ascertained by comparative study of city directories, where, for instance, a male ancestor disappears from the directories, and the name of his widow appears instead.
  • Who else lived at an address: genealogists can discover who an individual's neighbors were, and plot those relationships.
  • Life changes – for instance, an individual’s career changes over a period of time..
  • Verify other documents, e.g. the address on a WW1 Draft Card. Often in genealogy information in one document gains further credibility when confirmed by information in another.
  • Pointers to other documents / areas of research, for instance, the location of probate records, or property deeds. If a researcher knows where an individual was living, they can use that information to search for a nearby house of worship, for records of baptism, marriage, or burial, for instance. A city directory may reveal the location of a court where naturalizations took place.
  • Identifying the location of churches, schools, and fraternal organizations that an ancestor may have attended.

The above are only a few examples of how a genealogist may glean information from a city directory.

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Further reading

Online

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Reference librarians