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Directory Studies at Ancestry: Efficient Approach to Finding and Saving Information

City DirectoryIn recent weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time online doing what I call “directory studies”–systematically tracing individuals across multiple  city directory years to learn more about residence, occupation, and/or household configuration.

As I worked, I thought about the quickest ways to zero in on relevant pages and the best ways to save the information found.

I’ve settled on a system that feels like it’s working well for me and I thought I’d share. I’m sure it could be tweaked, but at the moment it feels comfortably efficient and effective.

Quick Access

I added the U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 database to “My Quick Links” on my Ancestry home page so that I can find it easily. If you’re not sure how to do that, check out their 5-minute video tutorial.

Efficient Browsing

When a search doesn’t take me to the page I want, I have to browse.

    • I type image numbers in order to quickly find the correct letter of the alphabet. Using 111, 333, 555 is quicker than typing 100, 300, 500. It’s a small thing, but the time and effort saved adds up.
    • Once I’m close, I use the filmstrip feature to zero in on the correct page.
    • If I’m browsing multiple years, I use the linked year at the top of the page to change directories rather than drilling down from the database’s main page.
Changing Years.png
Use the links at the top of the page to change location or year.

Saving Information

My quick approach to saving information is this:

  1. Open a new word processing document in landscape orientation and save it to my research folder.
  2. Add a 3-column table.
  3. For each directory checked, type the directory year in the first column. This allows the table to be sorted chronologically   if the entries are made out of order. I will often search five- or ten-year marks and then go back and fill in, based on what I see (or don’t see).
  4. When information is located, center the relevant entries under the directory title at the top of the page and use the shift-control-command-4 option on my Mac to capture them. (Not sure what to use on Windows, but it will probably Google.)
  5. Paste the screenshot into the middle column.
  6. Copy and paste the URL.

The resulting document looks like this:

Directory Study
This is what my word processing document looks like after I’ve colleted a few directory years.

I don’t save the directory pages to my computer or add bibliographic information to the table at this point. I realize that many might argue that this is unwise, but for my purposes–to gain a quick overview of how an individual or family moved through residences and/or occupations and/or family configuration over a period of years to look for information or patterns that might be relevant to a project–it works. If I discover that I want to use the directory information that I’ve skimmed as a formal part of a project, I can quick go back to the relevant directories to save images and create citations.

Two things I’ve learned from spending time in city directories:

  1. For browsing, Fold3 is GREAT! In fact, I often prefer it over Ancestry for Chicago  directories because it’s quicker to browse and is more ocmplete. (Ancestry, last time I checked, was missing the second half of a number of Chicago directories starting c. 1900. I contacted them about the problem. Not sure if it’s been fixed.)
  2. Be careful! It can sometimes be confusing, especially at Fold3, trying to decide which hard-copy directory the pages are from.


One Question at a Time: Focused Reports are the Key

For weeks, which actually add up to months, I’ve been working on two complex musician-related research projects for my own personal enjoyment. And, endeavoring genealogist that I am, one of my goals has been to write professional-level narratives that summarize my findings–something I’ve never done before.

Right. Who-knows-how-many hours later, I have a lot of drafts with a few strong paragraphs here and there and a very keen awareness that I am absolutely no good at organizing evidence into proof. I’ve gathered the pieces to many puzzles but I have no idea how to fit them together into a large cohesive whole.

I have learned something important, though, as I’ve been trying to write. I need to take it one focused step if I’m going to successfully wrap my mind around the information I’m gathering and feel like I’m making steady productive progress.

For me this seems to mean

  1. Opening up a new document and typing one very specific question. “Was Frances born in New York?” “Which city directories include Henry between 1890 and 1900?” “Does Sarah appear in the 1900 census?”
  2. Identifying sources, creating citations, and pulling out relevant information.
  3. Writing up my findings in a carefully-crafted report to myself.
  4. Repeating repeatedly.

It’s certainly not a new idea but sometimes you have to be there in the moment to come to an understanding of just how important something is.

So, for now, I’m going to step back, use the framework above to organize the informaton I’ve gathered, and then pick up the writing projects again. I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂

Research Reminder: Look Before Leaping

Yesterday I located an 1844 Chicago city directory entry for Pelag Barker. (1)

1844 Chicago city directory

I wondered what “Farmers’ Exchange” was, so I searched newspapers at GenealogyBank for clues. An 1848 Springfield, Illinois newspaper mentioned a new establishment called “Farmers Exchange, No. 9” (2) and based on that I thought  Mr. Barker might have been a grocery store proprietor before moving into the hotel and boarding house business.

Advertisement from a Springfield newspaper

I checked the business section of the 1844 directory for mention of the Farmers’ Exchange as a grocer, but found nothing. Instead, I found it listed under hotels. (3)

Hotel listing
Hotel listing from an 1844 Chicago city directory

Reading the two advertisements, I assumed that Mr. Barker had changed locations in the year prior to the directory being published. Luckily, I checked the previous  Chicago city directory, too. A similar entry appears in the 1843 directory, (4) meaning the move happened prior to that date.

Hotel listing
Hotel listing from an 1843 Chicago city directory

While I was looking for Mr. Barker, I made another important discovery.

The 1843 directory that is available on is actually a reprint done in 1896 and it includes an obituary section in the back that lists “names, places, dates, and ages at death of some of Chicago’s Old Settlers, prior to 1843, and other well-known citizens who arrived after 1843, together with others prominently connected with Illinois history.” (5)

Mr. Barker’s name didn’t appear in the obituary section of the directory. However, his death was noted next to his name in the alphabetical section. (6)

City directory
P. A. Barker entry in an 1896 reprint of an 1843 Chicago city directory

Moral of this blog post: Be careful, careful, careful not to jump to conclusions and make sure to explore sources thoroughly.


(1) J. W. Norris, General Directory and Business Advertiser of the City of Chicago for 1844 (Chicago: Ellis & Fergus, 1844; re-published by T. F. Bohan, 1903), 23, entry for P. A. Barker; digital images, “U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995,” Ancestry ( : accessed 1 May 2016).

(2) “New Firm,” Illinois Weekly State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 9 Aug 1848, p. 2, col. 7.; digital image, GenealogyBank ( : accessed 1 May 2016), Newspaper Archives.

(3) J. W. Norris, General Directory and Business Advertiser of the City of Chicago for 1844, 102.

(4) Robert Fergus, Directory of the City of Chicago for 1843, Fergus’ Historical Series, No. 28 (Chicago: Fergus Printing Company, 1896; originally published in Chicago by Fergus, 1843), 23, entry for Farmers’ Exchange and Lake Street House; digital image, “U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995,” Ancestry ( : accessed 1 May 2016).

(5) Robert Fergus, Directory of the City of Chicago for 1843, Fergus’ Historical Series, No. 28, 105.

(6) Robert Fergus, Directory of the City of Chicago for 1843, Fergus’ Historical Series, No. 28, 34.