Uncovering the past at the Sonoma County History and Genealogy Library
It's a place where people come to uncover truths and dig into their roots.
Tucked behind the Central branch of the Sonoma County Library in downtown Santa Rosa is a smaller, freestanding library, a repository of records of every ilk - thousands of items from historical books and manuscripts to old newspapers, maps, photographs, tintypes and all manner of old ephemera.
The Sonoma County History and Genealogy Library is a place where the curious make like detectives, traveling through time to find out more about their family stories, sifting out fact from lore and occasionally unmasking unsavory secrets.
Take Bill Turner. A retired student services dean from Santa Rosa Junior College, he has been spending his retirement years steeped in the past, including some shaky branches on the family tree.
There is the matter of his great-great-great grandfather Gen. Landon McCoy, who back in the 1850s or 1860s tried to kill his ex-wife's lawyer on the courthouse steps during a messy divorce. It got him eight years in San Quentin and a turn in Napa State Hospital.
“He was a legend,” said Turner, relishing what some might see as dirty laundry best left in the closet. “I love finding out about old Landon McCoy. Those are the kind of stories I love to put meat on the bones. It's real life. Being connected to a king and queen is not my interest at all. People talk about ancestors like that and my eyes glaze over. But when they talk about what real life is all about, I find it interesting.”
The specialty library offers both high-tech and old-school research tools, from an antique stereo-opticon viewer to view 19th-century slides to computers with access to a world of digitized databases and websites like Ancestry.com that the public can use free of charge.
Genealogical research is the second most popular hobby in the U.S., outpaced only by gardening. So what has long been one of the county's better-kept secrets behind the library since the 1990s, is getting discovered by more and more people, many of them hobbyists like Turner who love the thrill of the hunt and putting together puzzles from tiny threads of information. But people also use the library to unearth the history of their old homes, poring over city directories or peering with magnifying glasses over old Sanborn maps that documented property and buildings for insurance purposes going back 150 years.
New microfilm readers
The facility has recently undergone a notable upgrade, including a doubling in size, fresh paint, bright LED lights (the better to read old documents with), new public computers and an additional station, bringing the number up to five. There is now also a designated room for rare books, a meeting room where the library hopes to hold public classes in genealogical research and new state-of-the-art microfilm readers that are sharper and have embedded software for image enhancement and cropping options.
The $60,000 project was prompted by a pressing need to replace an absestos ceiling. It was made possible through Measure Y, the county library funding tax passed in 2016, that so far has allowed the library system to dramatically increase hours and hire more librarians. Between 2017 and 2018 the tax brought in $11.9 million for the county's libraries, Spokesman Ray Holley said.
The staff has also been increased at the genealogical library to help the public with research and to maintain and more than 16,650 print items, including indexes to cemeteries and marriage, birth, death and military records and 130 genealogy-related periodicals.
Kate Deadder is one of the librarians recently assigned to the genealogy library. She said a couple of weeks ago a man who had been researching a family connection to the Mayflower for several years suddenly let out a shout. He had found the elusive tie.
“First he was in shock. He couldn't believe it,” Deadder said. “He looked at it again. And then he said, ‘Can you look at this for me?' It was a tremendous find. It was something he had always heard in his family but hadn't been able to prove.”
Increasing digitization of records has allowed people to engage in sleuthing from their home computers and given rise to a new TV genre with shows like “Finding Your Roots,” “Relative Race,” “Ancestors in the Attic” and “Who Do You Think You Are.” Genealogical research has ballooned into a billion-dollar industry of commercial websites, books and over-the-counter DNA test kits that enable people to find lost or unknown relatives and to know with some accuracy, what part of the world their ancestors came from. The Helix test claims to even tell you what percentage of Neanderthal is in your DNA.