SPOTLIGHT: California Genealogical Society and Library

Founded more than 100 years ago on February 12, 1898 in San Francisco, the California Genealogical Society and Library is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization that assists, educates and encourages research in family history. Today CGS is located in Oakland, California and maintains a library, gathers and preserves vital records and disseminates information through publications, meetings, seminars, workshops, its website, blog and online catalog.

BAYNET speaks with Jane Knowles Lindsey, the president of CGS, about their services.

Genealogical Society and Library

Genealogical Society and Library

When is a good time to start thinking about using CGS? People become interested in genealogy for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s because of an elementary school project, a question about family medical history or just plain curiosity – we think any reason at anytime is the right time to get started! Unfortunately, many people start exploring their family roots after the the death of a parent or grandparent. Our oldest family members are a wonderful source of information so it’s best to ask family questions while we still can.

What is involved in researching your roots? Genealogy can be exacting – based on sound research principles with careful recording and analysis of source documents. Or it can be informal, such as a collection of family stories. Either way, the best place to start the search is at home – talk to relatives, raid the attic, read through the family papers. Take a beginning genealogy class like the one offered free at CGS on the first Saturday of every month.

If my ancestors were from outside California, how can CGS help me? The number one strength of the California Genealogical Society and Library is our active, generous and extremely talented membership. Genealogy involves a lot of detective work so it helps to have help. Many of our members, including me, do not have California ancestors but we learn so much from each other. And not everyone understands our passion for “dead people” so it’s nice to have a safe place where our hobby is appreciated!

What is one thing CGSL offers that newcomers most appreciate? Our member volunteers have donated thousands of hours indexing and abstracting records held by the society and creating the California Names Index – a free, searchable database at our website. Currently, there are more than 290,000 names in the index from state, county, and local references. It is an ongoing project and names are added regularly.

What other kinds of information that CGS offers that most users don’t realize? California is the major focus of the CGS library holdings, with special emphasis on the San Francisco Bay Area, but because we were founded in 1898 by New Englanders we also have significant material for the New England states. CGS has titles representing all 50 states and we are particularly strong in Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

What are the Wordless Wednesdays? Wordless Wednesdays are a device so bloggers can take a day off from writing and run a photograph instead. It’s a great way for the California Genealogical Society and Library blog to showcase the members of the society and their many activities.

Tell us about the most exciting results found via research at CGS. We did some research for the California State Military Museum about Medal of Honor winner, Harold Roberts, for whom Camp Roberts was named. Our members found a long-forgotten letter that Roberts wrote to his father during WWI just before his death. It became his last will and testament, was challenged by family members and led to charges of forgery and a fight for the money that was splashed across the pages of San Francisco newspapers.

What was the most memorable experience you had at CGS? In March we hosted a Scots-Irish Research Seminar with a speaker from Belfast. I learned that he had cousins in the Bay Area but that the families had lost contact with each other. In just the few days he was here I was able to find his first cousins once removed and they were able to meet. He came half-way across the world to help us find our Irish roots and I ended up helping him find his living family. Now that was rewarding!

How can we, as librarians and information professionals, help CGS? Help us spread the word about our great genealogical library in Uptown Oakland near the 19th Street BART station. We have 30,000 books and an all-volunteer staff with diverse ancestry who love to help people with research. We open our library at no charge to the public on the first Saturday of every month.