Monday, March 14, 2011

City Directories, Take a Closer Look

One of the amazing resources that we have here at the library is our collection of city directories, ranging from 1841-1968. In my opinion the directories are often under appreciated. Yes, they provide addresses for the residents and businesses of Schenectady, but if you take a closer look, they can tell us so much more about Schenectady than that.
The way I see it, the directories serve as a time capsule for a year of Schenectady history. They provide us with advertisements of local businesses, “The newest styles first, the best styles always, the Wallace Co.” in 1911 or “When you need protection go to Marcus Wing, Room 5 Ellis Building” in 1909 or “Subscribe for the Schenectady Gazette, Terms: $1.00 a Year” in 1885.
Each entry provides the full name of a resident and his/her occupation and place of employment. This means that the directories provide us with a great source of raw data, which can be used in a number of ways. We can look at last names in particular neighborhoods to determine ethnic majorities and how they change over time. We can also look at the kinds of occupations listed and how they change. We could also determine how many people employed in the city actually lived in the city itself. You can also use the directory to see how the city government was organized through the years, what departments it was divided into.
In a chat with Frank Taormina about the usefulness of the directories he pointed out that you can use the directories to establish connections between people. By seeing where people lived in relation to one another, and in a sense recreating the neighborhoods in which people lived, you can see how close people were. Often it is where people lived which lead to marriages and business partnerships.
So next time you are in the library doing some research, make sure you look in the city directories and they might give you some interesting pieces of information that you wouldn’t otherwise know.

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