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.



Leave a Reply