Originally created 03/02/98

Looking for roots

The room is surprisingly small to hold the details of a million lives.

Like many libraries, the Family History Center is cool and dimly lit, but the similarities end there. There are no dusty tomes here, no tons of paper sheaves printed and bound between heavy covers.

In a simple row of metal file cabinets, in a space barely larger than a laundry room, the rows of microfiche and microfilm hold the miniscule details that tell the stories of the ancestors of Richmond County residents.

There are census records from Ireland, Perry County death records, the Maryland Calendar of Wills, bank records from the Freedman's Savings and Trust Co. during the years 1870-1874. Copies of the Boone family Bulletin. Naturalization lists.

Few records are too trivial for the center, a branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The massive genealogical library, which has the names of about a million people and access to millions more from the main Family History Center in Salt Lake City, is a project of the Mormon church, but as many as 80 percent of the people who use it are nonchurch members, director Rhonda Watson said.

"Everyone here is so nice, and it's most helpful," said Lula Abbed, who was scanning a microfiched list of names in the center last week while her husband leafed through information about ancestral files. "We're up here so much -- before Christmas, we hadn't shown up in quite a while, and other patrons called us asking, `What's wrong? Where have you been?"'

The Abbeds' genealogical quest began in Magnolia Cemetery, searching for the name of Mrs. Abbed's great-grandmother after no one could remember the moniker at a family reunion. Long after finding Nancy Minton's headstone, the search for other ancestors has led them through thick public documents in area courthouses and into the Family History Center.

"Once you start, it's addictive," David Abbed said. "Between here, the Augusta Genealogical Society and the public library, you'd be surprised how far back you can go.

"And when you can go out and find a gravestone you didn't know about -- that's like Mardi Gras all over again," he added with a twinkle in his eye.

The center, begun as the Genealogical Society of Utah in 1894, was designed as a research tool for church members, who believe family members can remain part of a family unit beyond death and that deceased ancestors can also be part of the bond if the proper religious rites are performed. To that end, church members will research their family history to learn the names of their ancestors, Mrs. Watson said.

Missionaries from the main center in Utah travel throughout the world copying records to include in the library and assist in the searches.

"When the Iron Curtain fell, everybody headed for Eastern Europe, and they've been microfilming just as fast as they can get their hands on the records," Mrs. Watson said with a laugh.

An increased interest in genealogy has brought more people into the center in recent years. There was a similar surge in interest in the years before 1900, said Mrs. Watson, who speculates that looking toward a new century also makes people want to examine where their family has been.

"I think, too, in our society where so many families are broken apart, searching for that history gives people something to hold on to," she said. "They can say `I am part of something. I feel like part of a family."'

For Ruby McNeal, who scanned Social Security records at the center on a recent afternoon, the family history may provide a vital link to the future as well: Mrs. McNeal and her husband are trying to document American Indian heritage before adopting a baby through a tribal adoption service.

"I walked in and thought, `I'm lost,"' said the first-time visitor as Mrs. Watson walked her though the process of searching for her grandmother's Social Security number on a database. "But I think this can really help -- if I can ever learn to do it."


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