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15 May 2015

Before Facebook...Locating Californians in City Directories

by Dr. Henry Snyder           

Photo of Sherman Room housing City Directory collection
Come see our expanded collection of California Directories

City directories are an invaluable source for genealogists. They fill in gaps between censuses. Even more important, they extend the period for which residence information is available since the federal census is only available through 1940. CGS has had several hundred city directories for California in its collection for some years. We have exceptionally strong runs for San Francisco and Oakland-Alameda-Berkeley. Elsewhere our holdings are quite spotty. Now in an exceptionally generous donation, Dr. Stephen Harris, our former president, has given us his complete set of California directories. When combined with our collection the total number of unduplicated volumes comes to 963! They are shelved altogether, alphabetically by city, in new shelving acquired specifically to house them and installed in the Sherman Room.

Most of the directories were published by the C K Polk Company who began publishing directories over 140 years ago. A 1916 directory lists 58 areas in California—some cities, some counties—for which Polk published directories; we have at least one directory for 52 of the areas. The number varies from 98 directories for San Francisco to many single directories for some localities. Among the best represented are Bakersfield (42), Chico (16), Eureka (21) Fresno (46), Long Beach (17), Los Angeles (40), plus suburban areas, Merced/Madera (15), Modesto (32), Napa (34), Oakland-Alameda-Berkeley (43), Palo Alto (22), Pasadena (16), Richmond (18), Sacramento (61) and Suburban Sacramento (18), San Diego (27) and Suburban San Diego (6), San Francisco (98), San Jose (58), San Mateo (17), Santa Barbara (20), Santa Rosa (23) and Stockton (17).

A number of cities and counties in California and elsewhere in the United States have collections of directories for their own town. So far as we are aware, there is only one other substantial collection of California city directories and that is at the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley, where they are stored off-site and where they must be paged individually, volume by volume. Our collection, then, is a unique resource: Readers can go directly to the shelves and utilize any or all volumes they wish to consult.

But this is not all. Dr. Harris also donated his substantial collection of California telephone directories. These telephone directories fill in gaps in the city directories both place-wise and date-wise. What this means is that for most cities of any size in the state we have telephone directories which can provide essential residence information extending from before the turn of the century until about 1980. This extends the coverage provided by the census another four decades! 

Separate lists of the city directories and of the telephone directories are posted on our webpage. (We are in the process of transferring our online catalog from one utility to OCLC to make the records more accessible. We expect that transition to be completed by the end of May.  At that time we will update the catalog entries to reflect the full richness of our collection.)

We are delighted to be able to offer this unparalleled, unique resource to our members and guests and encourage you to visit now and often to make use of it.

I want to give special thanks to our devoted library team – Arlene and Ted Miles, Shirley Hoye, Gibran Rath, Kristi Wessenberg, Phil Hoehn, and Nancy Cork as well as to additional volunteers, Ted Okazaki and Todd Armstrong, for disassembling, moving and assembling shelves and moving hundreds of unwieldy, heavy volumes two, and in some cases three, times.  

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