Before Google or Siri, before the telephone book or even the telephone, humble city directories helped salesmen, businesses, and newcomers contact clients and neighbors.
Now a century’s worth of North Carolina directories is online (here) as part of the City Directories Collection from the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center (NCDHC). The collection features 939 directories from the years 1860 through 1963. They cover 108 cities in 64 counties.
The NCDHC is a statewide digital library based at the UNC Library and sponsored by the State Library of North Carolina. Through cooperative projects with libraries, museums, historical societies, and cultural institutions, it has digitized more than two million pages of North Carolina history since its founding in 2010.
The directories are a valuable tool for genealogists, historians, city planners, and anyone curious about the state’s past, said Nick Graham, program coordinator for the Center. “City directories don’t sound interesting until you realize how much is in them,” he said.
The simplest directories list residents alphabetically, along with their address and occupation. Some have a reverse-directory feature arranged by address that can help researchers understand how businesses turned over from year to year.
The most comprehensive directories contain a treasure trove of history, such as local business ads and Jim Crow-era publications that denote the race of each resident. Graham said UNC researchers studied the racial geography of Charlotte in 1911 by creating a map using the directories.
A convenient cross-directory search feature allows users of the collection to find all instances of a single name, business, or industry in the entire collection.
Most of the directories come from the stacks of the North Carolina Collection in UNC’s Wilson Special Collections Library. However, a growing number are from public libraries around the state and from other partners such as the Duke University Library.
“Local libraries often have things that UNC does not,” said Graham. He invites libraries and historical societies interested in digitizing their city directories to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (919) 962-4836.
The State Library of North Carolina supports the NCDHC with funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library and Services and Technology Act. UNC contributes the technical and administrative infrastructure and the expertise of staff consultants.