Sunday, March 10, 2013's City Directories

ACOM's City Directories aren't always the easiest records collection to use. Though they are improving, you'll probably find wildly inaccurate and nonsensical transcriptions - for example, a "1" instead of an "I". This is because they were transcribed by a computer with what is called OCR, Optical Character Recognition. The benefit is that it's quicker than having human beings index millions of names but the downside is that there can be lots of errors, especially depending on the quality of the original document or the scan. Basically, OCR is programmed to recognize the basic shapes of common characters in the English language on an image/scan and output it into text so when two or more characters look similar, it can get confused as to which one it is. This, of course, means that using the search function on the city directories is hit and miss but here's some tips to help you find what you're looking for.

  • Restrict to location. Make sure you've got the advanced search open (in the upper right corner of the search box, click "show advanced"). Type in the city name in the "lived in" field and in the drop down menu below it which says "use default settings" select "restrict to this place exactly". Obviously, only do this is you want to restrict your search to one city - if you know the person you're looking for lived there and only there. Since this part of the search doesn't use OCR, it's very effective in at least narrowing down your search to one location so your results aren't cluttered with irrelevant entries.
  • Enter a year. Similarly, if you have an approximate time period you're trying to search in, plug a year into the "any event" date. Only tick "exact" if you're looking for that specific year - if not, leave it unticked and you'll get results of or around that year. Use the +/- drop down to expand the year range further if you need to. There's also a "residence year" field at the bottom and in my experience, it works exactly the same so I don't know why there's both.
  • Use the asterisk. First try entering the full name of the individual - you might get a few results with good OCR entries but it won't be comprehensive. To find more entries, keep in mind that you really need only find an entry of any name on the same page and then you can open up the original document to check the details of the specific person you're looking for. So let's say you're looking for James Bronson - leave the first name field blank and merely type in "Bro*" or "Bron*" with the asterisk after the first few letters of the surname. The asterisk tells the system to search for all surnames beginning with "Bro" or "Bron". Most results, though they may not be for James Bronson exactly, will open up the page where I can find him, if not the previous or following page.
  • Use the keyword field. If you know the occupation of the individual or the name of the company where they worked, try plugging it into the "Keyword" field. This doesn't always work since it's dependant on the OCR but it can help. Alternatively, if you're looking for a specific address, it can also be entered in the keyword field, though I suggest not entering the full address, just part of it. Like if it's 100 Main Street, just put in "main". Also remember the asterisk can be used in this field too.

This photo of an unknown young man
was probably taken in 1893 or 1894.
I've been effectively using these methods to find the time periods and addresses of which different photographers in or around Philadelphia operated in order to get approximate dates on when my "mystery photos" were taken. For example, one of the photographs says the photographer and studio information is "James Bronson 4721 Main Street Germantown" and I discovered James Bronson had a studio at this specific address only during the years of 1893 and 1894 so I was able to narrow down one photo to only a two year period. Of course, it's important to remember that the directories didn't update on the fly so it's possible for an individual to move addresses after the directory is published with their former address. Theoretically, that means it could have also been taken in 1892, though the directory says Bronson's studio was at 4946 Germantown Ave in 1892, he could have moved later in the year.

Even if your photos aren't mystery photos and you have identified the individual in them, finding when the photographer operated at the address labelled can still help narrow down when the picture was taken.

I also used these methods to find tenants of my ancestor's properties by putting the address into the keyword field. There are many various ways to use these methods.

No comments:

Post a Comment