Oakland FamilySearch Library Helps Would-be Genealogists Trace Their Roots

Helping people find their people.


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Oakland Family Search Library at the Mormon Temple connects people to their people.

Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn

It started out as community service work for an undeserved fine, but the minute Alvis Ward stepped into the Oakland FamilySearch Library, he somehow knew his stay would last longer than the hours he needed to fulfill.

“I fell in love with the library, its mission, passion, and patrons instantaneously,” says Ward, a genealogist, of Oakland. “I have been a volunteer staffer since 2011 and volunteer approximately 12.5 hours weekly.”

The beautiful, 10,000-square-foot genealogy library is adjacent to the magnificent Mormon Temple, and boasts 75 large flat-screen computers, state-of-the art equipment, 9,000 volumes of books, periodicals, family histories, and more to help people discover their family roots.

Accessible to the public as well as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the library opened in 1966, is one of 15 largest genealogical libraries in the world (one of four in California), and averages 1,000 patrons a month, director Ralph Severson says. Every once in a while, he hears a pleasant outburst, he says.

“It’s like bingo night when someone jumps up,” says Severson, whose wife, Sue, is mayor of Orinda. “People stand up and cheer when they discover someone.”

It’s not just for discovering familial lineage six generations back with more than 18,000 titles of periodicals, records, census, and more to peruse. Severson says it’s also about learning more about your living relatives. He notes that we are just as related to our living family members as our deceased ones.

Earlier this year, an adopted 19-year-old came in with her adopted father to research her past, he says. “She narrowed her search down to three possible biological fathers,” Severson says. “The second door she knocked on, a 17-year-old opened the door, and she said it was like looking into a mirror. It was her full sister. Their shared mother had died in the 19-year interim since she had been adopted. She later reunited with her biological father who lives in San Francisco.”

To begin, your search starts with what you do know.

The FamilySearch Library provides a family tree chart to write down names, dates, and places of births, marriages, and deaths. Next steps involve talking to family members, gathering family records, and coming to the library to get free assistance with the rest.

“A lot of people in our community were inspired by the book Roots by Alex Haley, and how important it is to find connection to their family,” Severson says.

The library offers a wide variety of regularly scheduled classes on beginning genealogy, probate records, census research, getting the most from Ancestry.com, Googling ancestors, as well as Louisiana, Portuguese, and Swedish research and more, including a Weekend Training Academy for at-risk teens.

“I’ve been bit by the genealogy bug since 1998,” says Ward, also part of the Youth Ancestry Project of Alameda County. “I am most fascinated and overjoyed by genealogy through family stories, locating the people to bring the stories to life, and seeing the joy it brings me and others I assist with research.”

Oakland FamilySearch Library, 4766 Lincoln Ave., Oakland, 510-531-3905; open 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Tue.–Wed. and 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Thu.–Sat.; www.OaklandFHC.org.

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