Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Watchdog Wednesday

[A series dedicated to keeping up with the quirks of the indispensable big indexing companies, and suggesting workarounds or even actual changes to deal with them...]'s collections of city directories are admirable for offering images rather than transcriptions, and for covering long continuous spans of time (any one year's directory can be wacko).

Unfortunately, they also rely on the notion that there was only one directory for each city for each calendar year. After 1875, that was pretty much true in Chicago -- where most of my experience lies. But prior to that time there were often competing directory companies, which often adhered to different publication schedules. Footnote has dealt with this by interleaving all the different directories that it has assigned to the same year. (That's right, all page 4s appear one after the other. City directories are notorious for random and inconsistent pagination in various sections anyway; this just makes it worse.)

Under "1856," for instance, Footnote compiles together three different Chicago directories. (Note -- to use these links you must either be a subscriber or use a library that subscribes.)

Hall's Business Directory of Chicago (Chicago: Hall & Company, 1856), published 1 November 1856.

Business Card of John Gager & Co. Being a Mercantile Record of the Business Men of Chicago (Chicago: Solis, Zeller, Dow & Co., 1856), published 1 October 1856.

John Gager, comp., Gager's Chicago City Directory for the Year Ending June 1st, 1857 (Chicago: John Gager & Co., 1856), published 1 December 1856.

For any given page being viewed, the careful user can tell which book s/he is looking at by checking under "publisher" in the "About This Document" sidebar that Footnote thoughtfully provides. Careful researchers will be alert to this because they know that there is no such animal as the "Chicago City Directory for 1856." The careless user may not know this, or may not notice -- and may search the year for a target surname, get one result or none, and go away satisfied -- but without having viewed the comparable pages in the competing directories. I don't know of a way to search any one of these three directories by itself.

This was a competitive business with a short time horizon, not a public utility. I'm sure Mr. Gager would be astonished to know that we are still using (and misusing) his ephemeral compilations in the 21st century.

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