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Tapping the Source : Genealogy: Family trees grow new branches with the thousands of documents at the Mormon Temple's Family History Center.

April 01, 1993|LISA KLUG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTWOOD — Bill Bennett has spent much of his free time for the last 20 years filling notebooks with some 2,500 names of his ancestors. Looking to add to his list, he spends many evenings and weekends at the Mormon Temple's Family History Center doing research.

Bennett, a civil engineer, said in his search he learned that his family tree includes 157 European kings, three passengers on the Mayflower and Pocahontas.

Bennett is among the about 60,000 people each year who look for their genealogical roots at the Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon church is also known.

On a recent visit, Bennett walked away with a stack of computer printouts an inch and half thick, packed with the names of thousands of people he believes are his kin.

"I'll have another 2,500 before I'm done here," he said.

The Los Angeles center is second in size only to the church's collection in Salt Lake City and boasts more than 16,000 books, 70,000 pieces of microfiche and 85,000 rolls of microfilm.

Passenger lists, civic logs and census records from around the world help researchers of all faiths fill their family trees.

The library's collection is so extensive that groups such as the California Genealogical Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution visit the center for their research, said assistant director Robert Craig.

Sherry Harris, a professional genealogist who researches family trees for clients, said she finds the center invaluable. "This is the place to be," she said.

Family history has always been of great importance to members of the Mormon Church, said library director Bert Scoll, because the church teaches that the souls of deceased ancestors who were not members of the church can be saved posthumously. When they have identified ancestors who lived before the church was founded in the 19th Century or were non-Mormon, Mormons can arrange "saving" ordinances, such as baptisms and what the church terms the sealing of marriages for eternity. Although the library's original intent was to help Mormon families, about 70% of the visitors to the Los Angeles center are not members of the faith, director Scoll said.

The church opened the Los Angeles center in 1964 as a branch of the Family History Center in Salt Lake City, which has been collecting genealogical records since 1894, said David M. Mayfield, former director of the Salt Lake City library and vice president of the church's Genealogical Society of Utah.

In 1938, the church began sending teams of photographers around the world to microfilm records. The collection has grown to include the names of about 2.5 billion deceased people, Mayfield said.

The church is also compiling a computerized file of the names of the deceased, and library volunteers assist visitors of all faiths in adding the names of their ancestors to the collection, Mayfield said.

One of the most unusual resources of the library is its collection of pedigree charts--or family trees--that are the result of the research of others. Many of the center's 180 computers are equipped to access a catalogue of these charts.

Visitors type in the name of a person in the family they are researching. The computer cross-indexes the name with any family trees in its files that include the same name. If copies of the actual charts or any other materials are not already in the local collection, the Salt Lake City library will send them on loan to Los Angeles.

But many researchers are careful not to rely too heavily on the work of others and often spend a lot of time looking for primary sources for the information, Bennett said. "You know how people can make up stories. That's what genealogy is all about. It's the science of confirming, verifying or disproving those family traditions."

Marriage licenses and birth certificates are considered primary sources, and the library has them in abundance, Bennett said.

The center attracts regular visitors who spend years researching their past. Harris said the public's current interest in genealogy can be traced to the 1974 release of "Roots" and its later sequel, "Queen," the best-selling family histories of author Alex Haley.

In addition to her professional research, Harris has spent 13 years establishing her lineage back to the year 1400 and plans to donate copies of her work to the library's collection so that it is preserved for future generations.

"I've got a 2-year-old grandson and I'm going to indoctrinate him in all of this," said Harris, a descendant of pilgrim leader William Brewster. "I'm going to make a giant pedigree chart," she said, holding her arms out wide.

The library staff of more than 450 is almost entirely made up of volunteers. Scoll and a few others are there to fulfill the missionary work required of all church members.

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