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Handbooks for Foreign Genealogical Research

A Guide to Published Sources in English, Research Guide No. 23
Compiled by Virginia Steele Wood


Research into family history is an especially popular American pastime and age is no deterrent. Publications are legion; archival resources are abundant; lectures, conferences, workshops, and family reunions abound; groups sponsoring genealogical research trips are active, here and abroad; computer bulletin boards and electronic mail are popular means of exchanging information. The electronic age has also inspired large numbers of people to acquire personal computers and the software to aid in storing and arranging genealogical data. Thanks to desk-top publishing, many circulate the results of their research. As a nation of immigrants we seem intent on "finding" elusive ancestors and disseminating a written record.

Between 1607 and 1824 about a million immigrants arrived on these shores, most of them from Great Britain, Germany and Africa. The nineteenth-century potato famine in Ireland resulted in the exodus of several million people from that country beginning in 1846. Two years later, following the discovery of gold in California, the first Asians came from China. Except for a hiatus during the Civil War, immigration increased dramatically between 1850 and 1934 when millions left villages and towns throughout Europe to start life anew in America. Most of them were from Germany, Scandinavia, the Baltic, Austria- Hungary, Poland and Russia. The 1880s signaled the first significant influx of Italians.

A year after Congress passed its Immigration Act of 1891 (ch. 26, Stat., 1084), the Ellis Island Immigration Station began serving the Port of New York as the first of thirty facilities in the United States to operate under the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). During its peak years of operation, between 1892 and 1924, over 14 million immigrantsÄalmost 71% of the 20 million who came to this countryÄpassed through the gates at Ellis Island. Between 1925 and 1954 the number dropped to 4 million immigrants, 56% of whom also disembarked at New York. Busy ports of entry also included Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Galveston, New Orleans, and others.

For thirty-two years, 1899 through 1931, the vast majority of arrivals were from southern Italy, Germany, Poland, England, Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Denmark), and Ireland, in that order. Other eastern, central and western European countries were represented, along with those of the Middle East, Latin America, the East and West Indies, and islands in the Pacific. Given the vast numbers of those who endured the hardships of life at sea, the rigors of being "processed" at immigration stations, and who survived the vicissitudes of life in a strange new environment, it is little wonder that millions of their descendants are now making an effort to see for themselves the Ellis Island Immigration Station. It is our nation's only restored early immigration facility.

Today's descendants of nineteenth and twentieth-century immigrants are the beneficiaries of a major change in the focus of genealogical research in the United States. Formerly, many viewed it as the purview of those whose ancestors arrived here before the nation won its independence. In 1845, barely six decades after the American Revolution, the oldest genealogical society in the United States was established in Boston, and within two years began publishing a quarterly genealogical journal. From the mid-nineteenth century into the early twentieth, scores of hereditary societies were founded with membership contingent on establishing descent from an ancestor whose civil or military service predated 1783. As late as 1930 the eminent genealogist Donald Lines Jacobus (1887-1970) reflected this bias toward the earliest settlers when he claimed that the "chief value of genealogical study lies in the interest it arouses in colonial history and national antiquities. . . ." As recently as a generation ago many first and second-generation Americans knew little of their origins, and they discussed recent ties to the old country only within the family itself, if at all.

Following World War II such perceptions and habits gradually changed as some Americans without any claim to colonial ancestry, royalty, or the landed gentry began probing for information about their family background. By now, pride in ethnic and national origins has blossomed to a point where they are acknowledged and celebrated. Festivals featuring ethnic music, food, costumes, the language, and other aspects of cultural heritage are annual events of many cities. Within the realm of scholarly articles, books, and dissertations we find a wide selection that are germane to ethnicity. And due to the increased life expectancy in this county, the opportunities are now greater than ever to interview elderly relatives for first-hand recollections and impressions of a by-gone era heretofore so often lost to younger generations. As a nation of immigrants we are delving into family history with gusto.

This dramatic acceleration of interest can probably be attributed to a combination of events that have occurred within a mere decade and a half: the nation's bicentennial celebration (1976-83); publication of Alex Haley's book Roots (1976); the memorable televised Fourth of July celebration and unveiling of the restored Statue of Liberty (1986); and restoration of the Ellis Island Immigration Station (1990). Demolition of the Berlin Wall (1989), and the end of the Cold War (1990) resulted in opening borders formerly barred for decades to travelers from the west who can at last seek records linking them to their past.

In addition, greatly expanded facilities of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City (1993), with its millions of reels of microfilmed original documents, attracts some 14,500 people a week seeking records from around the world.

In what was once the old railroad waiting room ticket office of the Ellis Island Immigration Station, visitors pass a large diagram on the wall proclaiming "How To Find Your Immigrant Ancestor's Ship." This provides a succinct step-by-step procedure for locating passenger manifests. Inspired by the diagram, as well as exhibits throughout the station and numerous "how-to books" on genealogical research, people in all walks of life are attempting to recover some documentary evidence concerning their family or at least gain some insight into the immigration experience of their kinfolk. As they discover familiar names on ship passenger lists, naturalization papers, census records, and other contemporary documents, the motivation is strong to pursue family origins in the mother country.

This bibliography was prepared to help readers at the Library of Congress who seek guidance on how to approach the research in a foreign country, who need to know what records are extant, what information they yield, where they are located, and the means of obtaining them. Some of the handbooks are more comprehensive than others, but with the growing number of Americans who are seriously interested in pursuing this type of research, we can expect many more to be published in the years to come.

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  March 8, 2022
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