When she wants to visit old Atlanta, Rebecca Burns turns to the collection of city directories at the Atlanta Central Library.
Flipping through their pages, she has figured out who rebuilt after the great fire of 1917, learned who lived close to a man killed in the 1906 Atlanta race riot, and perused old advertisements, like one for a KKK chapter that ran next to a promotion for the Spelman seminary.
“They offer great insight into what the city was like,” said Burns, the former editor of Atlanta Magazine and current publisher of the Red & Black, the student newspaper in Athens. “All those details allow you to write history.”
But the directories were in Central Library’s special collections. And, with the facility closing for renovations for up to two years earlier this month, library officials were concerned that access to them would be disrupted. Plans to move the books to the Auburn Avenue Research Library seemed to falter when there didn’t appear to be enough space. Library officials considered allowing patrons wearing hard hats access to the upper floors of Central Library, where the materials might have been stored, while the rest was under construction. If that wouldn’t work, they thought, maybe the books could be brought out upon request.
In the end, there was an easier solution: The library system decided to buy online access to the Haines Criss+Cross Directory. For at least the next two years, people who are interested in the city’s history will be able to pore over the books from the comfort of their couches.
Whether the library system will continue to pay the $2,000 yearly access fee once Central has reopened depends on demand, said Claudia Strange, a library spokesperson. But for the time being, directories dating back to 1900 will be available online beginning Aug. 1. And space was found at Auburn for older directories that date back to 1867. Those likely will be available only by appointment.
“For the people who use them, they’re very important,” Strange said. “They show every old version of Atlanta.”
The directories have information about who was married to whom; race, income and occupation; whether streets were paved and whether there were sidewalks. They allow researchers like Burns to tell the stories of women or people of color who weren’t covered in the news at the time, and make it easier for genealogists to learn about what life was like for their families.
“It’s enormously valuable,” Burns said. “There are all kinds of things you can find out.”
Cecile Janssens was looking for information about her 106-year-old East Lake house when she looked over similar directories at the Atlanta History Center. Her address hadn’t yet been annexed into the city in 1912, but the Emory epidemiologist said she stumbled upon a treasure trove of advertisements that will help her with a book she’s working on.
Creating access to the digitized collection will be useful, she said, because it will open up the opportunity for people to browse, and perhaps come across information they had not sought.
“If it’s online, it’s easy, it’s searchable,” she said. “You have no clue what information is available, and where.”
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