The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1966, and allows anyone to request records from U.S. federal government agencies. To obtain information from local or state governments a request must be made according to state public records laws.
What does this mean for a genealogist? Well, think about the ways your ancestors might have interacted with federal government agencies throughout their lives as employees, citizens, or aliens, and then go for it. Did they work for a railroad or the WPA? Were they part of the CCC? Were they an alien living on U.S. soil during WWII? Did they have an FBI file? You’d be surprised where a file on your ancestor might show up. Not all requests for federal records require an FOIA form. Some you can simply order through the National Archives, so look into it before you make the effort.
NARA’s website has a research guide explaining how to use FOIA for genealogy records, but it is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the kinds of agencies your ancestor might have interacted with. You might find that the Guide to Federal Records, an online list of official federal Record Groups, triggers some ideas for you. Also, here is the link to a 2010 article in Family Tree Magazine titled, “Under Surveillance” which explores ways a genealogist might use FOIA.
To get you started, the National Archives recently posted a handy video on FOIA, so I am sharing it here: