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Directories (People) at the Boston Public Library: Home

Directories of individuals

This guide is intended to highlight the historical personal name directories such as city directories and telephone books, particularly ones that relate to Boston, Massachusetts and New England.

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About Directories

The Random House Dictionary (2nd edition) defines a directory as "A book containing an alphabetical index of the names and addresses of persons in a city, district, organization, etc., or of a particular category of people." The Boston Public Library’s venerable history is reflected in the range and extent of its directory collections. Since its founding the Boston Public Library has collected directories. They have accrued to the library from all subject areas that we have collected, with added value accrued from their retention. The types of directories in the library’s collection range from telephone books and city directories to the Social Register and membership, alumni, and business directories.

This research guide attempts to bring together the more commonly used resources for directory research.

More Resources

To search our book catalogs for more directories, use the search term Directories in the subject or keyword field combined with another term such as geographic names, corporate bodies, classes of persons, ethnic groups, religious denominations, types of organizations and any general topical headings for particular directories containing names, address or other identifying data.  Another related term that is sometimes used for similar kinds of materials is Address Books. 

Here are given some links for further information on directories and to make searching for them easier.

About our Directory Collections

A short description of the history of the directory collections at the Boston Public Library.

The first reference in the Boston Public Library’s Annual Reports to Directories comes in the 1866 report where it is written, “It should be stated here that what may be termed a library of reference, comprising several hundred volumes of the best and most recent Encyclopedias, Lexicons and Vocabularies of various languages, Gazetteers, Biographical  Dictionaries, Directories, Almanacs, Atlases, and Handbooks of various kinds, are arranged around the desk of the attendant, and left still entirely open to the use of everyone, without the slightest restriction.” Further mentions of the directories receive scant mention in the Annual Reports of the Library but over the years the collection continued to grow. The 1911-12 Report announces that the Sampson & Murdock Company presented us with four hundred and ninety-six volumes, directories of cities and towns in the United States. In 1913-14 Sampson & Murdock gave us another 356 volumes. 

The distinguishing feature of the directory collection is its size and extent. Individual volumes are not particularly rare by themselves but gain in value as a collection. This is not to diminish their intrinsic value. The replacement cost for the microfilm directories alone, as a unit, would be close to $1 million. Directories begin life as business reference books. Their simplest use is to tell where someone is. Zoning agencies use them to determine prior use of buildings. They have been used for proof of age or residency by governmental agencies. Their metamorphosis into references for history and history’s auxiliary study, genealogy, comes as they age. As directories most frequently are published annually they provide a chronological guide to where people, businesses and agencies were located and the activities in which they were engaged.  

The Library’s collection of bound city and telephone directories comprise one of the larger collections in the country. Roughly 6900 linear feet of volumes were cleaned and transferred from the Charlestown Service Building (CSB) to the City of Boston Archival Center (COBAC). The bound directories have been supplemented by extensive microform collections. From 1976 through 2005 the Bell & Howell Company (Later University Microfilm International (UMI)) published telephone books from across the country on microfiche. The Boston Public Library purchased a broad selection. In the 1990s UMI reprinted on microfiche and microfilm the set “City Directories of the United States.” The Boston Public Library owns a major portion of the set, roughly 12,200 reels and 1,580 microfiche. 

In the 2nd decade of the twentieth century more directories started appearing on-line and fewer in paper format. The last Polk City Boston City Directory was published in 1981. The Phone-fiche ceased in 2005. In regard to the telephone directories many individuals with cell phones are not appearing in directories at all. This raises the stakes for libraries to retain this portion of the historical record.

The city and telephone directories for Boston list the vast majority of adults and business on an annual basis. For each published year they provide information on individuals, their occupations and employers, family members, community organizations, businesses and manufactures, government organizations, publications, churches, and street and ward listings. The specialized directories in turn provide valuable information on their more focused subjects.