The tile page from the 1858-1859 Indianapolis City Directory, via IUPUI

City directories may be one of the most overlooked sources of genealogical information available. At the same time, they are some of the most easily accessible. If you’ve never considered looking at a city directory, now is the time to try. They are full of valuable information for both genealogists and historians.

 About City Directories

City directories were created for businesses as a way for them to find new customers and to keep track of current customers. They list the head of household for each address during a particular year. The directories were usually published every year, but sometimes, depending on the time period and publisher, printing was limited to every other year.

Regardless of their original purpose, city directories have become a priceless resource for city researchers. Researching ancestors who lived in urban areas can be incredibly frustrating. Many of the records that we take for granted don’t apply to city dwellers who may not have owned property, were less likely to be listed in local histories or newspapers, and may have been one of countless people in their vicinity with the same name. City directories can help to fill in the blanks for these relatives.

Directories also serve as an invaluable companion to census records. Having trouble locating a relative in a particular census? Try checking a city directory for that year to see if they actually lived in the area in which you’re searching. Want to find out when an ancestor moved from one house or city to another? Check the city directories. Looking for information after 1940? City directories may be available for times when censuses are not.

 Accessing City Directories

We are incredibly lucky here in Indianapolis to have a large digitized collection of city directories at our fingertips. IUPUI’s Univeristy Library, in collaboration with the Indianapolis Public Library and the Indiana State Library, has made 14 full directories available online. They range from 1858 to 1980 and can be accessed on the University Library website.

If you’re looking for a date that hasn’t been digitized for the above collection, several local libraries also have city directories in their local collections. IMCPL has several directories for Indianapolis and other Indiana cities. The Indiana State Library also has a large number of Indiana city directories. And you can always contact the library local to the area where you are researching to discover what city directories are available.

Indianapolis City Directory for 1914

A directory of Indianapolis street cars from the 1914 city directory, via IUPUI.

 What You’ll Find

Because they were created for the purpose of finding people, they contain information a person would need to locate someone and to verify that that person is indeed the person they were looking for. To do this they often list full given names rather than nicknames. They also list professions and of course, addresses. In cases where the head of household is a widow, they sometimes list the deceased spouse. All of these bits of information would help a contemporary find and contact them, but they also give us valuable clues about our ancestors.

For example, perhaps we’re trying to find the name of a male ancestor who had passed away prior to the 1850 census. Earlier censuses would be little help since they wouldn’t list the names of his wife and children. Birth records are difficult to obtain or even non-existent for that time period. However, if we could locate the widow in a city directory, we may find her late husbands name listed with hers. Once we have a name we can go back and find other records that would have been impossible to discover before.

Most directories also include a section that contains an alphabetical listing of streets and the people who lived there. This can be incredibly helpful for anyone interested in researching the history of a particular house, but it will also tell us who our ancestors’ neighbors were. This information may prove very helpful for future research.

Directories also contain detailed maps, business listings, churches, cemeteries, halls, social organizations, and even city officials. They also contain advertising, which can be incredibly interesting and at times, entertaining.

 A Few Tips
  • Keep in mind that not everybody will be listed in a city directory. Often people were excluded based on class, ethnicity, or even neighborhood. Others may have simply refused to participate.
  • If you are having trouble finding your ancestor where you think they should be, make sure you’re looking at the right street. Street names often change throughout history, and while some directories list these changes, at times you’ll have to consult the included map to determine the appropriate location.