The steps leading down to the quiet storefront added to the intimidation. He remembers it not as a cellar, exactly, but it was a small, dense room underneath the street-level life pulsing away in the evening.
Leo Myers, then just a teen, approached the door looking for answers. He sought to expand the hobby that began one afternoon in a converted chicken house in Eureka, Calif., where his grandmother lived. One afternoon, she pulled out a trunk containing the treasures on which Myers would spend his free time for the rest of his life.
It wasn’t enough. He sought more answers, and in his research he would find that answers often led to more questions. He read an ad for a meeting of the Southern California Genealogical Society — and it was here he stood opening the cellar door and officially entering his avocation.
“I felt like a little kid amongst the grown-ups,” said Myers, now 62. “But they were friendly, and very open.”
Today, the genealogical society is out of the basement and in its own building in Burbank just off Glenoaks. Upon entering the headquarters, I immediately relate to Myers’ first impression all those years ago.
It’s not exactly a library in the conventional sense, though every part of its DNA — the muted tones of collaboration, the rows upon rows of old books, and the alternating wall colors of beige and beige — holds that same gravitas of research.
Naively I approach the rack of books for New York state, thinking I might find my name or my family somewhere hidden in the hardbounds. The “New York Genealogical and Biological Record” is one of the shorter titles I find, and there I begin.
It is not an easy thing to navigate — its chapters meander between biography and phone book. “Incidental Intelligence” and “Thomas Cheesman, Shipwright of New York and His Family” contain no mentions of Mahoneys, and if I’m to find them in this or any other record on the shelves, I’ll need some help.
That, says society Director Paula Hinkel, is what the volunteers like her are there for.
“My whole purpose in life is to get someone as excited as I was to hit the links all the way back to medieval times,” she said.
Volunteerism is built into every facet of genealogists’ operations. They serve many roles: librarian, historian, researcher and sometimes psychologist. The latter function comes up more than you’d think — families using the society’s resources will often discover family secrets, hidden or obscured branches of lineage, or missing relatives in their searches.
Powerful, life-changing discoveries are made often enough that Hinkel and her volunteers find their own rewards in the floods of relief and gratitude that accompany each discovery.
“If they don’t cry, then we’ve missed it,” Hinkel said.
In recent years, the genealogical society has spread its reach through online seminars. The last 10 years have created marked shifts in genealogy as new research tools have grown and are refined, and a younger membership is finding its way to the society even if they never enter its doors.
Popular culture also fuels the history fires. In 1977, the miniseries of Alex Haley’s “Roots” created a spike in interest, and today shows “Who Do You Think You Are?” and an upcoming series on PBS by Henry Louis Gates Jr. are bringing genealogy to a new crowd, Hinkel said.
In Burbank, the needs of genealogists all over the Southwest are met by an organization 1,700 members strong. Since 1964, the society has grown its capabilities through ongoing educational programs, cutting-edge technology shifts (the Internet required its own sort of sea change, organizers say, because only so much information is available with keystrokes) and through its annual Genealogical Jamboree.
To hear Hinkel and Myers describe it, the annual Jamboree is like a family-friendly hybrid of Woodstock and Comic-Con. Except it’s all about genealogy, and the musical acts can range from Zydeco to Irish folk.
This year’s Jamboree will be June 8-10 at the Marriott Burbank Airport hotel. More than 1,500 people are expected to attend, and it’s an event so huge they take over the hotel’s convention space and a few tents outside. The theme, “Lights, Camera, Ancestors,” explores a distinctly local theme that will include, what else, a movie night and a “Genealogical Idol” competition.
There, detective-historians from all over the world will network with each other, learn the latest in research (the 1940 census is released this year, meaning all family records from that era will be publicly available for the first time), and perhaps meet someone who could be a distant cousin.
That’s what keeps them going; it’s about learning a living history, but it’s a history written with your own blood. That journey of discovery will lead you to some interesting places — Hinkel discovered that nine generations ago her ancestor was a slave trader, but another relative in that era was Abraham Lincoln’s best man.
“My research always raises the question, ‘Why?’” Hinkel said. “Why does a guy jump a boat from Germany to Detroit? You’ve really got to keep an open mind because you never know what you’ll find.”
For more information on the Southern California Genealogical Society and Jamboree, visit www.scgsgenealogy.com.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he’s not reaching for a branch on his family tree, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.