9 Can’t-Miss Genealogy Libraries

By Lauren Gamber Premium

In the day of online repositories, it’s tempting to skip the library research, but when we do, we’re selling our ancestors – and our research – short. Libraries are vital resources for family history researchers, and contain a lot of valuable information not available online, or in private collections. Local libraries often provide everything from online access (including subscriptions to and other online databases) to areas chock full of local history resources. And, when going to the library, researchers can take advantage of access to librarians with years of training in research methods and various subjects.
Whether your ancestors hailed from Michigan or Maine, Milan or Minsk, you’re bound to make headway at one of these giant repositories (listed alphabetically).
  • Allen County Public Library: This Fort Wayne, Ind., library’s claim to fame is the Periodical Source Index, which catalogs thousands of genealogical and historical periodicals published since 1800. Staff have collected more than 10,000 titles. You can access PERSI at the library or by searching

The library specializes in Canadian, British Isles, African-American and American Indian research. Its collection comprises 588,645 microfilms and microfiches, 55,804 volumes of family history books, 206,366 volumes of local history books, 28,575 microfilm reels of historical newspapers, thousands of maps and gazetteers, and more.

  • Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research:  This branch of the Houston Public Library keeps its entire collection in open stacks. It has the complete US census as well as the General Register Office Vital Records Indexes for 1837 to 1930 for England and Wales. A variety of materials pertain to Mexico and the Gulf Coast region, including immigration records for Southern ports.
  • Family History Library (FHL): The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ research facility in Salt Lake City is the largest genealogical library in the world, with more than 4,000 branch Family History Centers (FHCs) in 88 countries.

It has a huge collection of primary sources, including US federal and state census records and indexes, passenger lists for most US ports and some foreign ports, naturalization records, county records, foreign civil registration records, 87,000 family histories plus thousands of maps and gazetteers.

FHCs provide access to most of the FHL’s 2.5 million microfilms and 226,000 microfiche titles. See this directory to locate an FHC near you.

  • Library of Congress: The world’s largest library in Washington, DC, holds more than 50,000 genealogies, 100,000 local histories, 5 million maps and extensive collections of city directories and newspapers. Its North American, British Isles and German collections are especially strong,.

Be sure to check out the online American Memory collections and guides to the library’s genealogy collections.

It earns high marks for its complete US census collection, many immigration and naturalization records, manuscripts pertaining to the American slave trade and the antebellum South, and focus on the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Plains states.

  • National Society Daughters of the American Revolution Library: This Washington, DC, library was founded as a collection of genealogical and historical publications used to verify application papers for society membership. It now houses those applications and supporting files plus biographies, genealogies, cemetery records, Bible records, church records, city directories, periodicals and manuscripts—making it an especially great resource for tracing your ancestry to the Revolutionary War.
  • New England Historic Genealogical Society Research Library: Specializing in New England research, the society’s library in Boston has an impressive manuscript collection dating back to the 13th century. Eight floors hold unpublished genealogies, Bible records, family associations’ papers, diaries, journals, photographs, cemetery records and other rarities.

The resources aren’t strictly New England-focused: It also has extensive Canadian, Irish and British collections, featuring censuses and census substitutes, maps, parish registers, local histories, historical newspapers and journals, and Canadian border-crossing records.

  • New York Public Library: If your ancestors spent time in New York City, as so many immigrants did, the public library could hold genealogical clues. It offers “unique, one-of-a-kind manuscript volumes and privately published rarities,” particularly those pertaining to old New York families, says librarian Ruth Carr.

While you’re there, check out the extensive photo and map holdings. Another popular resource is the Emigrant Savings Bank Records collection of Irish immigrants’ personal and family information.

  • Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County:  Patricia Van Skaik, former director of this library’s expanded Genealogy and Local History Department, says the department’s biggest strength is its scope: “The collection covers all 50 states and some foreign countries with a wide range of record types.

    That includes microfilm of all available US censuses for 1790 through 1930, one of the nation’s largest collections of African-American materials, many Civil War military records and histories, passenger lists and indexes for most ports, an impressive map collection, and city directories from 1,500 cities (some are in the Virtual Library).

Not all libraries are purely bricks and mortar. Learn more about accessing undiscovered collections in online libraries.
Updated from September 2009