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Using City Directories in your Research

3-4 minute read

By The Findmypast team

3 May 2018

Welcome to this latest instalment of The Essential Guide to British and Irish Family History! This week, we'll be looking at how social history can contribute to your research, and how you can mine a variety of resources - such as city directories - to add new information and context to your family history.

City directories are annual listings of all the residents of a particular city and can provide details about your ancestor such as address, occupation, or family relationships. They will also provide information about the local businesses in the city, which can help you determine which records to search for next.

Using city directories strategically and close analysis over time will provide you with unique insight that you may not get elsewhere. It's important to evaluate city directories over time and go household by household, this is where you'll see the important family relationships emerge or changes in the household that you might not have been able to detect in a census or similar record. Remember in genealogy and family history research, patterns are revealing, so keep track of all the consistencies (and inconsistencies) you notice for comparison and analysis later.

Below are 8 tips to keep in mind to help with your directory search.

Look for patterns when searching city directories. One piece of data to pay particularly close attention to is the address or residence of your ancestor and their neighbors. You can see if anyone moved out, if your ancestor was married and someone new moved in, etc. to determine which records to search next. If a younger adult male left the household, but everyone else stayed, this may be an indication to search military records, for example. Using these clues will help lead you to the next record to search. If you start your search with your ancestor's name, be sure to also browse by your ancestor's address, always check both. It's important to browse by address so that you don't miss any important residents of the household because often that won't be revealed in a surname search.

Names change more than you'd expect in the records and directories are a great way to track how names change over a period of time. Name changes can indicate marriages, if someone decided to go by their middle name instead of their first, or potential misspellings in other records. If you find a name that might be misspelled, use that as a new search term to see if other records are affected too.

Documenting your ancestor's neighbors is also a really great way to help you track your ancestors. In the past towns were small and neighbors were often close. Sometimes, you might find that your ancestor married his or her neighbor, which can unlock the world of maiden names and a whole new branch of research for you. Neighbors are important in genealogy, don't forget about them.

Many directories include your ancestor's occupation, which can lead you to other useful records to search. If your ancestor is listed as a farmer, for example, land records would be a great place to search for your ancestor to see who owned the land previously, if it was family owned and passed down, or if he or she sold the land at a later period.

Pay attention to the local businesses section in the city directories because those can reveal additional records for you to search. If there's an advertisement for a local cemetery, then you can try looking up that cemetery to see if your ancestors were buried there. They'll also reveal local newspapers, which can be extremely useful for those difficult-to-find ancestors, churches, and more.

Sometimes city directories will also include mortality and birth information of the city's residents, so keep an eye out for that data as it can help you determine when your ancestor died and in some cases, how they died, or where your ancestor was born. Sometimes city directories don't list names of those who died or who were born, but if you've been evaluating directories across time, you can see which residents were listed in the previous year with approximate age, and then in the following year if they seem to disappear and the rest of the family is there, it could be that this person is one of the listed residents who died.

If you have ancestors who didn't live in bustling cities, don't worry, you can also search directories by townships or counties and you might be able to find your rural ancestors located in those records. Another place to find your rural ancestors could be in advertisements for their local farm, if they're farmers, for example, or even if they're craftsmen they might be advertising their goods or services in the directories.

While residential directories are the most common type of directory, there are also organizational, church, and occupation based directories for you to search as well. If you know your ancestor was a dentist, for example, you can try searching our dental surgeons directory to see if you can find your ancestor listed.


We hope you found this instalment of The Essential Guide to British and Irish Family History valuable. We'll be back next week with more. As always, if you have any questions or comments about the course or Findmypast in general, please let us know over on Facebook or Twitter!