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Beginning Genealogy

Julie Huffman, Librarian, History & Genealogy Department,
[photo of great grandmother]
Is this woman related to the King of Sweden?

Am I related to anyone famous?

What is my ethnic background?

How far back can I go? 1800s? 1600s? Adam and Eve?!

Genealogy—the study of an individual’s ancestry—is a wildly popular hobby and profession. With access to online records and nifty family tree software programs and websites, it’s increasingly easier for us to investigate our pasts.

But the first thing you want to do takes place away from the computer: Talk to your relatives. Get all the info you can: names; birth dates; the places your people lived. If possible, tape-record your conversations. The recordings can be surprisingly valuable. For example, I have a recording of someone saying, “Well, Palmaroy, Jr. and Claude Turner, they were our first cousins because their mother was our mother’s half sister on her daddy’s side.” Whew! If I hadn’t had that on tape to review over and over again, I wouldn’t know which end was up regarding that relationship.

Even if you don’t have time now to transcribe all the interviews, get out there and get these people on tape while you can. Also, your relatives may love getting together with you and talking about their lives—it’s a win-win (just bring the coffeecake to butter them up.)

The next step is to start up a “tree” so that you can keep the things you find out organized. You can do this on paper or on a computer. I prefer a computer, because you can upload pictures, audio, digitized records, etc. and keep things organized without even thinking about it. It is possible, of course, to do it on paper—you just have to be really on the ball (because the information you accumulate will grow and grow and soon become HUGE, so if you’re not on top of it, you could forget what goes where.)

For you “paper” people, here’s a link to a free chart that www.familysearch.org provides to get you started.

Familysearch.org also offers a free option to create an online tree (Ancestry.com has a great one, too, but you have to pay a subscription fee to use this feature.). With Familysearch.org, you sign up with a user name and password, click “Family Tree” from their home page, and then add the first person to your tree. Put in other people you just happen to know (parents, grandparents) and you’ll have a beginning structure in place that can grow and help you organize the future evidence you gather.

And, of course, what separates the trees from the acorns is the evidence that’s been gathered to support your claims. My great grandmother said she was related to the King of Sweden. Considering she didn’t even know his name, her declaration gave me pause. But, if she’d coughed up a birth certificate citing Oscar II and Sophia as the parents of Emma Sophia Oberg, I could attach a scan of that guiltlessly to my tree and invite myself to the royal palace. So, in short, to make your tree top-notch, you need to gather evidence.

The core evidence that makes for a nice, solid tree-member is: proof of birth, marriage, and death. By “proof” I mean anything official that states your person did something on a certain date in a certain place (e.g. a state-issued birth certificate or a church baptismal record.)

Where do you get this evidence? It's now a lot easier with online resources. The library provides free access to ancestry.com (if you're AT the library) and you will find a lot here--frankly, I'm addicted to this site. Scans of census records, military records, birth and death records, and indexes, etc., are to be found here, and tons more. The library also provides free access to HeritageQuest (remote access available with library card) and American Ancestors (Central Library access only), just go to databases.lapl.org and you'll find them alphabetically. And there's the free, fabulous website FamilySearch.org that anyone can get into with an Internet connection. These core genealogy websites can get you started accumulating the evidence you need to "prove" your tree.

In addition to the Big 3 (birth, marriage, death), you can spice up an individual’s tree spot with evidence pointing to places of residence, military service, photographs, immigration records, and notable events found in newspaper clippings. And anything else you can think of that will give this person a unique footprint on the Planet Earth (and provide interesting info for future generations to peruse.)

Birth, census and death records will hopefully provide the names of the mother and father of an individual, so this will allow you to add new names to your tree. And then you gather evidence for them, and their parents, and so on, working backward until you hit a brick wall or the hominid Lucy.

To dip your toes in, come to one of our Genealogy Garage events and speak/listen to the dynamite people from the Southern California Genealogical Society. Or, go to their library in Burbank and access their resources for free, (or join for only $35 a year and get all kinds of perks).

I really recommend the seminars at the Los Angeles Family History Library. This is the library affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they are the geniuses of genealogical information and resources. I did the 3-Day Intensive Family History Course last week (for only $20…and I got free donuts) and was blown away by the great teachers we had. It’s really worth it to check them out, (whether you’re a beginner or old hat.)

And, of course, come to Central Library’s History & Genealogy Department, we’re open. I’m the new genealogy librarian and I’d be happy to show you around. We have some interesting resources online and in-person that I’ll be talking about in future blog posts.

Like doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku, researching your family tree keeps your brain sharp. You’ll feel like a detective unearthing answers, and you will have many (quiet) “Eureka!” moments. You might make contact with people from far-away places—I’ve emailed with newly discovered relations from Iowa, Pennsylvania, Canada, Norway, and Sweden. And you might find it makes history more interesting for you.

To be frank, I’m not certain I’d like to hang out with most of the people I’ve uncovered and posted into my tree—some were real creeps, according to reliable (unofficial) sources like my “King of Sweden” great grandmother. But, like it or not, they’re part of my history and that’s that. We all have demons and saints in our pasts and, if you give it a chance, you might become obsessed with seeking them out and create something original and interesting for the whole family to talk about.