One of Ancestry.com’s most popular record sets is US City Directories, 1822-1995.
It’s a useful collection if you have an Ancestry subscription. Type in a name and place and you’ll likely find one or more records for the person you’re investigating.
But more and more, city directories are being digitized and hosted at free sites, allowing you to do similar searches without an Ancestry subscription. You’ll do more legwork and you won’t always find the same directories available, but there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find your family in the free US City Directories. Just remember, you don’t need to find them in every consecutive directory to get useful information.
The lowdown on City Directories
City Directories pre-date telephone books and can work as a census substitute and allow you to locate individuals in a city and potentially get their spouse’s name, their profession, and their address. With an address you can often do reverse lookups in city directories and by looking up the street address you can see who their neighbors were. Often family lived near each other and you’ll find relatives with the reverse lookup feature or you might have old, partially-identified photos with your ancestor and neighbors and the reverse lookup will allow you to identify them with their full name.
City Directories will usually include some historical information about an area, possibly a gazetteer with maps, street locators, churches, schools, and more. They can help you locate streets and buildings that no longer exist. And city directories usually have business directories as well, with a separate section for a listing of businesses. There are advertisements throughout the directories that give you a taste of yesteryear.
If you’d like to try your hand at free US City Directory searches, you have multiple search options.
You can start by using this link to OnGenealogy.com with “directories” in the “Search for” window and type the state you’re researching in the “Near” search window, then hit “Search” and inspect the results.
Internet Archive searches
You can go to Internet Archive and search for the city or state and “city directory” in quotes and see what results show up. I’ve been adding these city directories to OnGenealogy and organizing them by city/state/year so there’s a good chance you’ll find these at OnGenealogy and they’ll be in consecutive order, rather than random years/cities.
Google Books searches
You can use Google Books and be sure to specify you want results for free books. Here’s a blog post with directions for finding free books at Google Books. I’m currently adding these to OnGenealogy.
You can visit HathiTrust and search for the city or state and “city directory” in quotes and see what results show up. I’m currently adding these to OnGenealogy.com so if you don’t find them at OnGenealogy, definitely try an exhaustive search at HathiTrust.
You can visit the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), a digital library aggregator, and let it point you to the online archive that holds the city directory you need. This might be a better way to search for HathiTrust directories because the HathiTrust search engine isn’t perfect. At DPLA you can enter “city directory” and then HathiTrust and a city, not necessarily in quotation marks, and the results should give you directories for that locale hosted by HathiTrust.
Visit a Local Repository
Most libraries and many genealogy societies have original city directories on their shelves. If you’re able to do offline research, check out USCityDirectories.com for a catalog (not complete) of which institutions have directories or microfilms of directories for each state/locale.