Jim Kettel, genealogy supervisor at BCPL
Before the internet age and the telephone there has been a need for businesses to be able to find someone living within the city. Issuing credit before “credit cards” came into being meant businesses trusted the buyer to pay for their purchases at a later time. Over time, city directories came along as a way to help verify someone’s address for delivery and debt collection. They are also utilized as a tool for salesmen to sell their goods.
City directories are a list of names and addresses of residents of a city. This is largely true, however there is much more to a directory than that. Directories usually contain an introduction about the city, information about its economy, government officials, and a short history of the city. There is usually a street directory and sometimes maps of the city and its boundaries. Also found are business listings, associations, churches, reverse look-up of phone numbers and much more.
While directories weren’t created with the genealogist in mind, thank goodness we have them. A genealogist uses a directory many different ways. A federal census allows us to find a family every ten years, but city directories allow us to track the heads of households many times between censuses. By simply looking up a name in a directory you may be able to track where a person has lived throughout a long period of time. You might also find where they’ve worked, who their spouses were, perhaps if they owned property and more.
Using the street directory section (this is a section alphabetized by street and house number that was added to most directories in the early 1930’s) we are able to perform a sort of “house history.” Looking up the same address in successive years we are able to see who has lived in a particular home throughout the decades. This could help answer the question, “how old is my house?” Utilizing the street directory, you may even be able to find out information about the neighboring homes as well. The same process can be used to find businesses. We are constantly asked to find various businesses in and around the area, and with the directories we can usually find them.
One of the more uncommon uses for the directories is ghost hunting. Occasionally, patrons come in looking for information about their house because they believe it may be haunted. While we can’t use the directories to see if a person died in the home, we can find the names of past residents, which is a good starting point for finding out more information.
The earliest directory we have is for 1897-98, which lists Ashland and Catlettsburg. Each successive directory includes both cities, and starting in 1918 Russell was added to the directory. It wasn’t long until Pollard, Oakview, and South Ashland were added (these areas were brought into the city limits around 1923). Finally, it was in 1958 that the growing communities of Bellefonte, Fairview, Flatwoods, Kenwood, West Fairview, West Russell, and Westwood were added to the directory. Even later the majority of the county residents were added to the listings.
If you’d like to look through the directories we have here at the library, stop by anytime and we’d be happy to help you. For more information, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org