At the outset, it is important to note that the IHRC does not maintain certain types of records commonly associated with genealogical research on immigrants, such as ship manifests and naturalization records. For more information about conducting family history research on the Internet, please see our Family History Research page. The collections focus primarily on the experiences of the immigrants and generally consist of documentation they themselves generated as opposed to information recorded by government officials or others involved in processing newcomers through American ports or assigning them citizenship.
Nevertheless, the Center's holdings have proven useful to numerous researchers attempting to identify immigrant ancestors or to learn more in general about the lives and legacy of millions of Americans who came from other lands. The collections span the period between the mid-1800s to the present, reflecting more recent migration activity and manifestations of ethnicity as well as the mass migration period. Materials include the written records of American-born generations as well as immigrants. The collection is national (indeed, international) in scope, with strengths of geographic coverage relating closely in most cases to concentrations of immigrant settlement.
The IHRC holds over 23,000 books, 900 newspaper titles, and 3,000 serial titles along with ca. 900 manuscript / archival collections amounting 4,500 linear feet. Researchers should be aware that a large percentage of this material is in the original languages of the immigrant groups. For this type of introductory article, only the most cursory level of description is possible. In most cases, the various finding aids and cataloging records at the IHRC provide more detail on the following sources.
In addition, The Immigration History Research Center: A Guide to Collections by Suzanna Moody and Joel Wurl contains a thorough survey of the Center's holdings. This guide is available online.
Most European immigrant groups produced a number of different annual publications (yearbooks, almanacs, kalendars), some of which have proven extraordinarily useful for family historians. Along with obituaries, these sometimes include biographical profiles of individual immigrants as well as historical vignettes of immigrant settlements often accompanied with original photographs. Many of these publications were widely popular owing to a diversity of content that included literature, news from the "Old Country," children's stories, art, music, and more. They, along with other serials and newspapers in general, furnish fascinating insights into the daily lives and interests of the immigrants and their descendants.
Fraternal/benevolent societies have also published their own histories, jubilee-anniversary books and conventions. Many of these contain information about individual lodges and their members, as well as photographs. They also provide the researcher with good background information on ethnic community life.
A common item on the IHRC's shelves of published material is the church jubilee or anniversary album. Prepared in celebration of a church's founding or in commemoration of a major event such as the opening of a new place of worship, these monographs usually include listings of current and past members, brief histories of the church and sometimes of the local ethnic community, profiles of the church's leaders, numerous photographs, and ads or notices from the various sponsors of the publication. Some of these publications offer surprisingly detailed and unique information for local and family history research.
The IHRC holds the records of several agencies established both within the ethnic communities and by mainstream society to service basic needs of individual newcomers. For instance, a great deal of information on post-World War II refugees can be found in the files of the American Committee for the Resettlement of Polish Displaced Persons, the United Ukrainian American Relief Committee, and the Polish American Congress.
The records of immigrant cultural and political groups often comprise documentation on membership while illustrating the wide array of activities and concerns associated with the immigrants' adjustment to America and vice versa. Some examples of useful collections are the records of the Dramatski Zbor "Nada" theatrical society of Chicago (Croatian), the Stella del Nord Chapter of the Italian American Historical Association, the Jugoslav Socialist Federation, the Polish Library Society of Minneapolis, and the Latvian Chorus Shield of Songs of Kalamazoo, MI. In addition the administrative files of economic or business enterprises sometimes contain information on individual members and consumers. Among these kinds of collections are the records of Finnish consumer co-op organizations as well as office files of publishing agencies such as the Paryski Company of Toledo, OH (Polish). The latter contains voluminous listing of individual subscribers along with advertisement regards and correspondence with readers of the firm's nationally-circulated newspaper.
Although the Center's holdings are composed chiefly of documentation originally found in the U.S., important material has been reproduced from archives in countries of emigration. Included in the Finnish American collection are three sets of microfilmed "America" letters. Numbering over 14,000, these letters were written by American and Canadian immigrants to friends and relatives in Finland between 1890 and the 1960s. Also on microfilm is a large collection of information from the Hungarian Prime Minister's office, 1895-1917, pertaining to emigrants from various regions of the Austro-Hungarian and another from the Italian Office of the Commissioner of Emigration, 1901-27.
Self published autobiographies and family histories have become increasingly popular. These works also provide insight into the daily lives of early immigrants, relationships between first and second generations, customs passed down to children, and more. They can also be helpful as models for presenting one's own family history or for writing an autobiography. The IHRC holds a substantial number of these works for several ethnic groups.
Visitors to the IHRC's reading room are aided by a small but useful set of general reference works, some of which focus specifically on genealogical sources and methods. Included are bibliographies, catalogs, guides to holdings elsewhere, research handbooks, dictionaries, and directories for various ethnic repositories and institutions. Among the more useful tools for family history research are The Source (1984), Ships of Our Ancestors (1983), In Search of Your European Roots (1986), Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records... (1981).
Those who have attempted to trace ancestors to European locales know how difficult it can be to pinpoint a town or village of emigration. The Center's collection of maps and atlases is limited but it does include some of both a contemporary and historical nature that can assist in this process. A more extensive collection can be found at the John R. Borchert Map Library, located at the University's main (Wilson) Library.