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New Roots

The Gene Pull

The curious joys and odd surprises of tracing your family tree.

It is, at first glance, no more impressive on the inside. Aside from the panoramic painting hanging behind the reception desk that depicts the intersection of religion and genealogy—and a large mural that illustrates how Stephen Douglas, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney are all descended from colonist Anne Hutchinson (a chart that doubtless inspires many a tired tree-tracer to plug on)—it looks very much like a typical research library, albeit a very large one. There are scores of computer terminals and hundreds of microfilm viewers and vertiginously long rows of file cabinets containing more than 2.5 million rolls of microfilm, and, on any given day, around 2,000 people using them; 850,000 visitors passed through the place at some point last year. Many of them arrive for the first time with a misconception of what the library is. "I can't tell you how often we'll get people in here who are on a layover for a few hours at the airport and just drop by to pick up a copy of their family tree," Tim Bingaman, a research specialist at the library, told me. "And I have to explain that we don't just have them on file."

Contrary to popular belief, the Mormons aren't really in that business (although many of their library's regulars—professional researchers—are), and what's more, almost all of the records you can find in that facility can also be found throughout the rest of the country and the world in local libraries and courthouses and archives. What makes the CLDS Family History Library so special is that it has them all in one place—and that, by and large, everyone who comes to visit the library has the same objective in mind. There is a certain camaraderie in the tree-tracing trenches, since genealogy is hardly a zero-sum game and everyone has a pretty good sense of what that guy in the next carrel, who just spent four hours poring over ship manifests and came away with nothing, is going through. But they are also unfailingly determined, and most of the time the place resembles nothing so much as a casino, rows upon rows upon rows of microfilm viewers lined up like slot machines, the people sitting at them rhythmically tugging the cranks, their faces slack as they watch page after page of film spin past, yet ever ready to spring back into joyous focus if and when they hit the jackpot and a familiar name pops up.

And even though the library has clocks and windows all over the place, a great many visitors pass six or eight or even 10 hours without noticing and scarcely without budging, because they know what I learned that afternoon in Alexandria, Louisiana, when I thought I'd take a break from tracing someone else's family tree and see if I could actually find anyone from my own. I did, of course, without too much effort; and then I found another, and another, names on a paper—not even a paper, really, just a photograph of one—that I'd heard before: a grandfather's uncle who was a pioneer in the movie business; a great-grandfather who owned a grocery store in Connecticut; another great-grandfather who made his living airbrushing photographs and who died of emphysema contracted from the chemicals he used in his work; a great-great-grandfather who emigrated from Russia in 1887 and died just eight years later, in his early 50s, of peritonitis. And with each successive discovery, that metal-detector-unearthing-a-quarter-from-1892 sensation increased exponentially, because each discovery matched a name to a story or a story to a name, and each connected me more securely to an ever-expanding network that linked me to a history, to my history, and helped me understand that I am who I am because they were who they were. Yes, on some level people get into genealogy because they want to learn more about themselves; but on another, deeper level they do it for the same reason that people do almost everything that's not directly related to putting food on the table or perpetuating the species: because they want to feel that they are a part of something much bigger than just themselves.

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