In a sense, researching one’s genealogy has never been easier, with online services eager to provide resources for a fee. Yet, all those options can be intimidating in and of themselves. How should someone get started?
Since 1966, a Baton Rouge church has provided the answer.
That year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints started a genealogy library housed in LSU’s Middleton Library. The Family History Center has moved twice, and since the 1990s has been at the church’s facility next door to the local LDS Temple at 10335 Highland Road. It remains a go-to place for those who’d like to find out more about their lineage.
“We’ll train you,” said Suzanne Schexnayder, one of a handful of Mormon volunteers who staff the center from 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays and 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays. “We’ll also show them a lot of free websites they can go home and use. We’ll also show them how to go to the catalog of the Family History Library and put in a place name and see what microfilms they have. On a computer here or at home they can order those microfilms.”
The Family History Library is the Mormon church’s repository of microfilms in Salt Lake City. Since the 1930s, local volunteer Richard Jacobs said the church has been going to churches and courthouses throughout the world microfilming records that can be vital for genealogical research. There are 2.5 million rolls of microfilm in Salt Lake City, Jacobs said, any of which can be ordered to be loaned to the local center.
Such efforts at assisting genealogical research is motivated by church doctrine. The Latter-day Saints are unusual — if not unique — among faith groups for believing that rituals such as baptisms on behalf of dead relatives can assure that families can remain united in eternity, said Val Riggs, the church’s Baton Rouge Stake president.
“People like to know where they came from, and that’s exciting,” Riggs said. “We do it for a purpose.”
But, one doesn’t need to be a Mormon to make use of the service. The center has access to subscription services such as Ancestry.com, as well as a variety of printed and microfilmed records.
“A person who comes in here, we’ll encourage them to bring what they have,” Schexnayder said. “If someone comes in here and says, ‘I have nothing,’ the first thing we’ll say is go to the oldest relatives in your family and ask. You need access to relatives. After that, come back with what you have, even if it’s one name, and we sit you down and look at what you have.”
Census records are readily available online, and they often provide enough geographic information about a family to extend the search to other records that are available on microfilm. Schexnayder said patrons can search the LDS Family History Library’s online catalog and order microfilms to be loaned to the local center, and they can then come in and view them on the center’s microfilm projectors.
Through experience, the center’s volunteers have learned the migration trails that people typically followed to arrive where they lived in previous centuries, Schexnayder said.
“It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but often it isn’t,” she said. “Often, we find two or three or five people at one time.”
Although people often hope to discover they are descended from someone famous, Schexnayder said, searching for such connections is almost always fruitless. That is not to say there aren’t discoveries to be made along the way.
Schexnayder said she discovered she is distantly related to her husband, Michel, and thinks she has solved a family mystery about a great-great grandfather who apparently left the priesthood in France and married a Louisiana woman.
“That’s what makes genealogy interesting,” Jacobs said. “It’s the stories.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was changed to correct the days the center is open.