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Genealogy: Connecting the Past to the Future

A new season of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is fast approaching with more stories, more surprises and more history. Premiering September 23 on KCTS 9, the second season of this hit series will again dive into the lives of various individuals, taking them on an intimate journey of self-discovery as they connect their past to their future. The series proves how important and powerful genealogy, the study and tracing of family ancestry, can be. By taking a visit to Seattle Public Library’s Central branch, you can also begin a similar journey.

Seattle Public Library’s Central branch is more than just a pretty building; it’s an oasis of information and possibilities. Librarians John LaMont and Mahina Oshie took the time to speak with us, explaining what drew them to a profession in genealogy, what resources the library offers and what kind of research you can do from home.

How long have you been working for the Seattle Public Library's (SPL) Genealogy Department?

Mahina: I’ve been a Librarian with the Seattle Public Library since May 2008, and in Special Collections as Genealogy Librarian since October 2011.

John: Ten years in May. I started at SPL in 2004 just prior to graduating from Library School, and my first day on the desk was opening day at the new Central Library.

What began your own personal interest in genealogy?

Mahina: Growing up in Hawai’i I was surrounded by people who were like me – mixed race. I’m Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese (by way of the Atlantic islands of Cape Verde, Madeira and the Azores), Polish and Spanish. I wondered how people from so many different parts of world could have ended up in Hawai’i. I wanted to know more about the people who would take such an enormous risk by sailing halfway around the world to start a new life.

John: I first became interested in genealogy in 1988 while working for an attorney in Washington, D.C. The fellow I worked for had some family papers in the office and his mother had recently passed away. The combination of the two inspired me to write to my grandmothers, asking about the family history. They both wrote back a few pages with details, and I was on my way. I moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma soon after and visited my first genealogy library and first LDS Family History Center. I moved to Seattle in 1993 and with all the resources available here, I was hooked.

What have been some of the highlights and rewards of assisting others with their own research?

Mahina: The absolute best part of helping people with genealogy research is being a part of their journey. It’s a wonderful experience to see the excitement that lights someone’s face when they first see their ancestor’s name on a record. Seeing that name on a record helps bring that person to life.

John: One of the greatest things about working with people on their genealogy research is that we get to hear their stories and share in their emotions, experiences, and discoveries. Everyone’s family story is different and it’s fascinating to see this first-hand one family after another - untold stories, unasked and unanswered questions, intrigue, etc. Another highlight is that we get to learn new things all the time. There’s quite a bit that’s similar from one family to another in terms of records and methodology, but there are often records specific to a given place or time period that you only find about when you have a reason to look.

Why is genealogy important?

Mahina: It gives you roots and ties you to history. Experiencing history through the lives of your own family makes it feel richer and more alive. It can make you feel more invested in events of the past. It can bring you closer to the family you know and lead discoveries of family you never knew existed. 

John:  The answer will vary from person to person, but the importance is often very personal. I think it helps us understand our roots and gives us a better sense of where we fit in history. The more we know about our ancestors - the decisions they made, the trials they faced, the people they knew, and the times they lived - the more we understand our own story. And there are certain events such as the birth of a child or death of a parent that make genealogy more immediate (if not more important).

SPL has its own genealogy department; is this common in other libraries across the nation? What makes SPL’s genealogy department and its resources stand out?

Mahina: Yes, more so now than ever with the popularity of genealogy. Often genealogy is part of a history or special collections department. At SPL, genealogy is part of our Special Collections department. We have the largest genealogy collection in the Pacific Northwest and it is growing.

John: You'll find genealogy libraries around the country with varying size and scope. Some are private (D.A.R. Library, Washington D.C.; Family History Library, Salt Lake City, UT) and some public (Clayton Library, Houston, TX; Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, IN). Smaller libraries typically have collections covering the immediate area while larger, typically urban libraries often have broader collections covering their geographic region or beyond. The Seattle Public Library genealogy collection is one of the largest in the Pacific Northwest with over 45,000 volumes and has a scope covering the entire U.S. We offer free access to several genealogy databases including Ancestry Library Edition, HeritageQuest Online, America's Genealogy Bank, and American Ancestors, and we have two full-time Librarians specializing in genealogy that are available to assist patrons with their research. We also recently became a FamilySearch Affiliate Library, which allows our patrons to borrow microfilm from the largest genealogy library in the world – the Family History Library in Salt Lake City!

What kind of assistance and resources will individuals receive at SPL’s genealogy department?

Mahina: Our collection and reference desk are on level 9 of the Central Library. There are two genealogy librarians on staff to provide help to patrons who walk-in, email or call us. We also offer one-on-one appointment times to offer help on working through the trickier problems. We also offer classes on a quarterly basis.

John: The collection consists of county histories; courthouse, cemetery, church, census, and military records; family histories; name books, both personal and geographic; books on heraldry; and several genealogy guidebooks and databases.

Two full-time Genealogy Librarians are typically available seven days a week during regularly scheduled genealogy desk hours, in pre-scheduled one-on-one appointments, and by e-mail via the Library's Ask-A-Librarian service. The genealogy collection is available all hours the library is open and any staff at the level 9 reference desk can help get you started.

For beginners, we start with an ancestor chart and try to fill in the blanks and confirm details using the Library’s subscription to Ancestry Library Edition - U.S. Census records, public records, and birth, marriage, and death indexes are at the top of the list. Where we go from there depends on how much we find or don’t, and what questions remain unanswered. For more advanced researchers, we’ll answer specific questions, identify resources in our collection, and offer suggestions for further research.

What should individuals bring to their visit at SPL?

Mahina: As much as they know! Whether that is a lot or hardly anything at all it at least gives us a place to start. Another good place to start is by filling out a pedigree chart (family tree with your direct ancestors). The blanks on the pedigree chart will help to guide a research plan.

John: The most important things to bring are yourself, an interest in genealogy, and hopefully a few names and dates for your recent ancestors (parents, grandparents, etc.) An ancestor chart with names and dates (birth, marriage, death) filled in is ideal, but we keep a supply of blank charts at the reference desk too. In general, the more you know, the easier it is to connect your family to records online and in print. And the more we know about your research and your questions, the better we can answer them.

Outside of SPL, what are some other resources individuals can take advantage of to obtain more ancestry information?

Mahina: There are so many great resources available it’s hard to name them all. Libraries are a big one, especially the Family History Library (they have the largest genealogy collection in the world). Archives are hugely important since they hold a lot of the original documents. For example, we have indexes to probate records in Maryland but we do not have the actual records.  Many institutions have made records and indexes available online. The Washington State Archives - Digital Archive is an incredibly rich resource with many scanned original records available. Newspapers are rich in genealogical information; these can be accessed in databases, on microfilm or online through websites like Chronicling America. I could go on and on!

John: We have a short list of sources on our website that are a good start. You’ll find several free websites such as FamilySearch.org, and Cyndi’s List, and the Library’s genealogy databases such as HeritageQuest Online and America’s Genealogy Bank (these two are accessible from home).

There are several local genealogy societies that offer regular classes and other smaller genealogy collections that may have materials of interest. The Seattle Genealogical Society and the Fiske Genealogical Library are both listed on our site and have substantial collections along with many classes. The National Archives at Seattle provides access to original federal records from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska along with a variety of microfilm and online access to military and other records available at Fold3.com.

How easy is it to do genealogy research from home? How and where should individuals begin in their research journey?

Mahina: There’s a funny saying that only a genealogist views a step backward as a success. Always start with yourself and work backwards. The census is the backbone for US research so start by finding your parents on every census record they could appear on (US Federal Census started in 1790 and is available through 1940 due to privacy laws; 1890 was destroyed in a fire). Then you want to locate all the vital records – birth, marriage and death. Once you’ve done that, you can take a step back to the next generation – your grandparents. Then do the process over again for each generation. There are a number of other records to use to help fill in those ten year gaps between census years and provide more information – city directories, military records, newspapers announcements and articles, property records, wills and probate records, to name a few.

You can do a lot of research from home for free. With a library card you have remote access to most databases with the exception of Ancestry- Library Edition which must be used in a library. Many libraries, genealogical and historical societies have wonderful websites and researchers available to help. There are even a lot of books available online from home through Google Books, Archive.org and FamilySearch.

John: There’s quite a bit of information available online now, and it’s easy to get started. First, you should start asking family members what they know - parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on. Who has the old photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, or the family bible? Has anyone started researching the family already? From there, start searching major genealogy websites such as the ones listed on our site: FamilySearch.org, RootsWeb, HeritageQuest online. And google the names and places you’re looking for to see what comes up. When you hit a road block or have questions about where to turn, contact the library, and we’ll give you some suggestions.

For those interested in pursuing genealogy from home, what are some research and organizational tips they should know?

Mahina: I’m a strong proponent of using a research log; some kind of method to keep track of what you need to search for, what you’ve searched for, what you’ve found and what you haven’t found. It’s a way of not duplicating your efforts and being able to retrace your steps if you ever lose a piece of research. This could be a sheet of hand written paper, an excel spreadsheet, a word document on your computer or note pad on your smart phone. Whatever it is, make sure you have a duplicate and that it’s something easy for you to use. If you prefer keeping your family history research on paper rather than on a computer or online, then try to use a three ring binder. Loose leaf pages are much easier to organize than a bound notebook. My most important advice – have a back-up copy. However you are keeping your records and family tree, make sure that you have a second (or third) copy somewhere. Genealogy is a lot of time consuming work and it can be crushing to lose your research.

John: Start with yourself and work backwards one generation (and one record) at a time. You’ll pick up clues along the way that will hopefully help you find the previous generation and prevent you from researching the wrong family. Be sure to document your sources as you go and make note of where each piece of information was found. Before long, you’ll find conflicting information and you’ll need to know the sources to determine which is most reliable. Use ancestor charts, family group sheets or genealogy software to keep track of all the information you find, and use a research log to keep track of the sources you’ve used. The U.S. Census taken every 10 years from 1790 to 1940 is the backbone for American genealogy research, and you should try to find your ancestors there from birth to death. This will tell you where your ancestors were living over time and help you identify additional records to search. The library has a large selection of circulating genealogy guidebooks, which are great for learning about resources and how to do research. These guides range from basic to advanced, include online and offline sources, and cover U.S. and international research by geographic area and ethnic group.

For more information, see John and Mahina in action at last year’s History Café

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