Using Directories for Genealogy Research

There are several different kinds of directories that can be useful for family history research. They can contain information about where an ancestor lived, what they did for a living, who they lived with, and more.

Below is an overview of some directories that you can use for family history research.

City Directories

City directories are listings of the residents and businesses of a particular city or town. They include the names, addresses, and occupations. They may also include dates of death, where someone worked, and information about when and where someone may have moved.

Good Things to Know

  • The directories would primarily list only men for many years
  • Women would be included only if they were considered the head of their household (which usually meant they were widowed)
  • Married women started being included in the 1930s, in parentheses next to their husbands' names
  • All adult women began to be listed under their own names around the 1950s
  • Children were not listed at all

Boston City Directories Important Dates

  • 1789: First edition published; sorted by first letter only
  • 1790-1795: None published
  • 1796: Second published
  • 1797-1819: Irregular publication; not issued every year
  • 1804: South Boston annexed
  • 1813-1848/49: People of Color listed separately
  • 1820: Annual publication started
  • 1836: East Boston annexed
  • 1847: First complete separate business section organized by category
  • 1868: Mission Hill & Roxbury annexed
  • 1870: Dorchester & Mattapan annexed
  • 1873: Brighton & Roslindale annexed
  • 1874: Allston, Charlestown, Jamaica Plain, and West Roxbury annexed
  • 1912: Hyde Park annexed
  • 1930: First to include a separate listing organized by address
  • 1933: First to show the names of wives alongside their husbands
  • 1961: Last edition to publish death dates
  • 1968: First to include a numerical telephone directory
  • 1978 & 1981: Last two editions published

Boston City Directories Online

Various editions of the Boston City Directory are available online at these websites:

Other City Directories Online

City Directories from other places in the country are also available online. Many are on the database Ancestry Library Edition as well as the Internet Archive. Below are links to a few collections of digitized city directories from other cities in the U.S.

Society Directories

Society directories are listings of the wealthiest residents of a city/town. They generally only list the addresses of the people included.

Good Things to Know

  • Many of these directories were biased and would exclude certain sections of the population based on race, religion, or other perceived differences
  • Names were frequently shortened to initials, i.e. Mr. J.M. Smith
  • Married women were frequently listed under their husbands' names, i.e. Mrs. John M. Smith or Mrs. J.M. Smith
  • Unmarried women would be listed with the formal title Miss, i.e. Miss Jane Smith
  • Listings could be organized by address or alphabetically by last name, depending on the directory

Boston Blue Book

Clark’s Boston Blue Book includes residents from Boston who lived in “selected” districts, as well as those who lived in hotels. Early volumes are organized by address, later volumes in alphabetical order by name. Later volumes also expanded to include residents of selected districts in Brookline, Cambridge, Chestnut Hill, and Milton.

The BPL has the Boston Blue Books in hard copy from 1876-1937. They can be requested at the Research Services desk located on the second floor of the Central Library in Copley Square.

The Social Register

The Social Register began publication in 1887, when it covered prominent members of New York City’s social elite. Editions covering other cities, mainly in the Northeast, were also produced in the following years. In 1977 the different editions were combined and one volume that included the entire country was published.

Early editions list married women under their husband’s names. Their maiden names are in parentheses. The register would eventually include the names, addresses, educational information, and social club memberships of the people included.

The BPL holds the Boston edition of the Social Register in hard copy covering from 1890 to 1976 (with gaps) as well as the national edition from 1977 to the present. They can be requested at the Research Services desk located on the second floor of the Central Library in Copley Square.

Society Directories Online

Other Directories

Telephone Directories

The Research Services department at the BPL holds a large collection of telephone books in microfiche and microfilm format, primarily covering the Boston area.

Boston Lists of Residents

The BPL has a collection of Boston Lists of Residents covering from 1909-2014, many volumes have been digitized and are available online. 

Other Lists of Residents

The BPL also has a limited collection of lists of residents covering other cities and towns in Massachusetts. Please contact Research Services via to ask about a specific place and year.