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Library offers family tree searching

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com · 340-2395

Oral history and family Bibles allowed Melissa Cooper to trace her family history back several generations, but she never had hard evidence of her family tree.

She does now, and she didn’t have to travel to other cities or states to track down census records.

All the information was a click away at Decatur Public Library.

The library added a special edition of Ancestry.com three months ago, which uses the Internet to link with millions of government documents from around the world.

It has U.S. Census records and the U. S. Public Records Index; Social Security Death Index; selected census records from England, Wales and Scotland; World War I and II draft registration cards; Civil War Pension Index and soldiers and service records; New York passenger and immigration lists from 1820 to 1850; and border crossings from Mexico to the United States from 1903 to 1957.

There are biographical and autobiographical databases, such as the Slave Narratives, which consist of 20,000 pages of interviews with former slaves.

“My favorite are the Slave Narratives,” said Sandy Sherman-McCandless, library director, noting it can be searched by topics such as ghost stories, voting and folk medicine. “It’s sad sometimes, but always interesting.”

Sherman-McCandless said the program won’t instantly reveal a long family tree with just little bits of information.

It’s still tedious work, but it eliminates the need to visit courthouses and read over old documents, she said.

Librarians can help patrons get started, but it’s helpful to know parents’ full names, birth dates, places of births and date of death if applicable.

Individuals can order Ancestry.com and use it from home computers, but they’ll pay $9 to $30 per month depending on whether they want world or just American records and whether they’ll commit to a year’s membership.

Library patrons get it free due to a yearlong subscription made by an anonymous Friend of the Library.

That saved the library more than $3,000.

Plans are to renew it for another year if patrons find it useful.

Already popular

The library hasn’t publicized its availability, but it’s already getting daily use.

In May, it had 66 users who averaged 23 minutes.

“A lot of people are putting together family trees and they need those census records,” said Edwina Beason, reference librarian.

She said she also had a woman who needed to find the death date of a relative and only knew the year.

She could have spent all day searching newspaper obituaries from that year, but Ancestry.com allowed her to do it briefly, Beason said.

Patricia Slaten, library public relations coordinator, said she had never seen her grandfather’s handwriting until the library got Ancestry.com.

“He died when I was only 10 years old,” she said. “But there it was, his signature on a military registration card where he registered for the draft in 1918.”

Cooper, also a librarian, said she used the Internet program to confirm oral traditions.

That included a British knight in the 1400s, one John de Holcombe.

The program pointed her to Burke’s Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland, and through an interlibrary loan she was able to get copies of the pages to confirm what her family had told her.

A side benefit of using Ancestry.com, Cooper said, is that it connected her with other family members who had information she didn’t have.

“Even if you have just a little bit of information, it will definitely help you expand upon that,” Cooper said.

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