What Are They?
City directories first came into use in what is now the United States in some of the east coast cities in the 1700s and continue to be published today in both the United States and Canada. The most recognized publisher is (R. L.) Polk City Directories, but many other publishers were also involved in the city directory business. These books were used to help salespeople and deliverymen locate individuals for commercial and delivery purposes and to provide advertising space for businesses. In many instances, people had to pay to have their names listed in a city directory, which disqualified many of our poor and day laborer ancestors. In addition, ethnic and racial minorities were often excluded. After the invention of the telephone in 1876, some directories began to list phone exchanges and numbers, where available.
Why Use Them?
These volumes were often produced annually or every other year. They list the name of the head of the household, the street address, and often give the occupation and employer of the head of household. The listing can include whether the individual was a boarder, renter, or owner. As children became adults, they were listed as well. When a man died, his wife was often indexed as "Smith, Mary, widow of John," and occasionally you'll see a person's name with a death date. These last two examples are great death record substitutes. Using city directories year by year can help you track where your ancestors were living, especially in the absence of census records, more notably the 1890 Federal Census. An individual may be listed as boarding with another person, and by finding the others residing at the same address, you may confirm your theories that the individuals are related.
The community pages also list the houses of worship, businesses, clubs, cemeteries, and other features of the community, sometimes including city maps and a brief history of the area. This information can help you determine where your ancestors may have worshiped, worked, socialized, or been buried, leading to clues for further records.
By the 1920s, many city directories often additionally had a cross-directory, in which an address could be looked up and the individual(s) who lived there would be listed. This is especially useful for seeing who lived next door to your ancestors, or checking out others in the household who had different surnames.
Do Directories Exist for Rural Areas?
Yes, in a variety of formats. Sometimes you will find small towns and rural areas listed at the end of directories for their nearest big city. Like city directories, county directories include the individual's name and occupation. However, instead of a street address, you will often see a section number of a township given (in American public-land states), the number of acres owned, and the value of the acreage, as well as the name of the community post office where the individual received their mail.
Rural directories produced by granges and farm cooperatives often listed the number of heads of cattle, horses, and sheep owned by the individual in addition to the acreage information. If the farmer had a telephone, the phone exchange or number would be given.
There are also business, church, and institutional directories. Records that can be used similarly are association and school yearbooks and voter registration books. All kinds of directories for foreign countries can also be found using online resources.
What Format are They In?
Of course, the original directories are still available in printed form. These can be found in archives, libraries (including the Library of Congress or the Library and Archives of Canada), or for sale at online auction websites and used book sites. Some historical directories have been reprinted and several years' worth may be available in one publication.
Many directories have been microfilmed by the LDS Church, and can be ordered from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah to view at your local Family History Center. Archives and other libraries may also have city directories on microfilm or microfiche.
Some directories (or their microfilms) have been digitally scanned and are available online, usually at subscription websites, such as Ancestry and Footnote, although some are located at free public websites like Google Books or Cincinnati Public Library. In some cases, the data is only available in transcribed or indexed form, which is the format in which many of the directories used to be at Ancestry. Still others have been scanned and are available for sale on CD.
Where Can I Find Them?
Besides the links given above, links to city and other directories (both online and off) can be found by checking out Cyndi's List of City Directories and by performing a Google search (see search term examples below). While there is no comprehensive list of all city directories available online (which is why I recommend Google), Cyndi probably has the largest such list. Here are examples for finding a city and a county or rural directory with a search engine:
"grand rapids" michigan ("city directory" OR "city directories")
"kent county" michigan director*
"kent county" michigan director*
What Online Resources Exist to Further Help Me?
After winning an eBay auction of a 1925-26 R.L. Polk City Directory of Detroit, Michigan, Jasia of the Creative Gene blog wrote a wonderful and comprehensive 11-part series on the wealth of information within city directories, which can be read for free, beginning here. I guarantee that after you read this series, you will be anxious to get your hands on a city (or rural) directory of your ancestors' locations!
Cyndi's List of City Directories - this page consists of four parts: the first is General Resources, which includes links to various free online articles and tutorials. Like Jasia's series, you'll want to check out these articles and tutorials--many written by professional genealogists--to increase your knowledge about and search skills in using city directories. Libraries, Archives & Museums list locations where you may be able to find directories in published, microform or digital formats. Locality Specific links specific online directories categorized by location and year. Publications, Software & Supplies links to vendors where you can purchase new, used, or reprinted directories, and CDs.
FamilySearch has numerous Research Outlines for many locations: American states, Canadian provinces, and a multitude of countries. In nearly every location's Research Outline, there is a useful section on Directories, listing the Family History Library microfilm numbers for that area's major cities' directories, as well as web links and mailing addresses for archives and repositories that may contain published or microfilmed directories for that location. These outlines can be read online, or downloaded and/or printed in PDF format. To access them, go to the FamilySearch website, click on the Research Helps tab and choose Articles. Then click on the letter with which your location begins (M for Minnesota, A for Alberta, or B for Belgium, for instance) and find the Research Outline for that location.
Lookups - If you're not having success locating a directory, try City Directory Lookup or Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness.
Dae Powell has a handy City Directories form on his Shoestring Genealogy website to help you keep track of your research in this resource.
What Offline Resources Exist to Further Help Me?
City Directories of the United States of America has gathered information on many city directories stored at U.S. libraries and archives.
Use the Family History Library catalog to find microfilmed directories for your ancestral location by going to the FamilySearch website, choosing the Library tab, then Library Catalog. Choose Place Name and then enter either the city or county name of your location in the first search box and a state, province, or country name in the second search box. You may be prompted to choose between locations with identical names. Locations are listed from largest to smallest. Once you've found the resouces for that location, look for Directories. Only microfilmed resources can be sent to your local Family History Center, but you can ask the Family History Library staff to do a lookup within a printed publication for a small fee (ask for this mail-in request form at your Family History Center).
Eichholz, Arlene H. Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources. Ancestry, Inc.: Salt Lake City, 2004. Similar to the FHL's Research Outlines, this book has a chapter on every state in the union, listing all the genealogical resources for each state, including directories. Most libraries, especially those with genealogical collections, have this resource.
Luebking, Sandra H. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Ancestry, Inc.: Salt Lake City, 1996. This book is the opposite of the Red Book in that it has chapters for each type of resource (including city directories), explaining in great detail how those resources are used in genealogy and where to locate them. Again, this would be found in most libraries.
Random Tips I've Learned:
Look at the beginning of the directory for the abbreviations used within.
Try alternate surname spellings.
If searching an online database of scanned images, don't rely on that database's search engine to find your ancestor, even if he had an unusual surname. Be willing to browse through the pages alphabetically, using some simple math skills to determine where in the directory your ancestor's name might be listed. For instance, if his last name begins with M, and the directory has 700 pages, you might try looking at page 350. Move back and forth within the directory by 5 or 10 pages and then narrow it down by 1 to 2 pages until you find it.
Don't be surprised to find 1) your ancestor at a different address each year; or 2) your ancestor "missing" every few years or so.
Take time to learn about the community through the community history and service pages.
Remember that information was gathered annually or every two years, much like a census, so that by the time it was published, it may have been inaccurate, or your ancestor may have moved or died.
Realize that both street names and house numbers changed over time, and that "new residence" your great-grandparents appear to have moved to may actually be the same structure they are listed at in the last directory.
If you are viewing a microfilmed or scanned copy of a directory and notice pages missing, look at the end of the film or section of film or database for that directory. I once did a lookup request for someone who was trying to find their ancestor in the microfilmed 1899 Washington, DC city directory, which I had on permanent loan at my local Family History Center. Unfortunately, the page of the directory (which I could tell from the microfilm images was in poor shape) on which his ancestor should have appeared was missing. I reported this information to the requester, deleted his message from my e-mail inbox, and went on my merry way. Months later, I was looking at this same film and discovered that all the loose pages from this directory had indeed been microfilmed and were located at the end of the film! :-(
Many directories had a "new listings" or "recent changes" section which listed updated addresses that were gathered too late to place within the alphabetized directory of names.