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Finding family…for free!

Digging through a box of old, black and white family photos can trigger curiosity about the fascinating people in the pictures and what their lives may have been like. If questions like “Who are they?” and “Where did they come from?” linger, there are resources available through the local library to help get some answers.


Wendy Sykes, genealogy guru at the St. Cloud Library, has traced her family history back several hundred years. Contributed photo

“Genealogy Basics” is a class offered by library staff at Great River Regional Library (GRRL). Close to a dozen women and men gathered at the Waite Park branch on a cold March evening to find out how to begin digging into their family history. The library has databases available on their website for anyone with a library card to use, and they can be accessed at home at any time, day or night. Heritage Quest, St. Cloud Times Obituary Index and ProQuest-Historical, Minneapolis Only are available at Using Heritage Quest, one can search through federal census records from all the way back to 1790, to just a few decades back, 1940.

Ariel Kirst, patron services librarian, said that GRRL recently acquired Ancestry Library Edition, the world’s largest online family history resource which allows patrons access to billions of historical documents and photographs and family trees. Unlike other databases on their website, this resource is only available for use at the library.

FamilySearch, operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is the best, free resource for family research. It has collected millions of historical records from all over the world for over 100 years. Some of their collections include birth, death, and marriage records for most states and other countries, U.S., Canadian and European census information, immigration and travel records for many countries, family trees of volunteer members and worldwide church records. On their website,, the researcher can look through records and create a digital family tree.

Another resource,, is an online virtual cemetery with headstone photos and obituaries available. Kirst said people will volunteer to go to cemeteries and take photos to post on this site.

Church records can be valuable in doing genealogical research, according to Kirst. “During wartime, government buildings were bombed so their records were lost. But a lot of churches were spared so their records remain.”

How does the genealogy novice get started with tracing family roots? Attending the free “Genealogy Basics” class is one way to begin. Wendy Sykes, library associate at GRRL, created a PowerPoint presentation, which includes information on websites, family trees and how to interview a relative. Her advice for beginners is to start close to home by looking at documents and photos and the family Bible for names and dates. Talk to other family members and document everything. Another tip is to research the area where ancestors came from.

Sykes has been interested in genealogy since she was young. In her childhood home, there were books with family histories, filled with photos and anecdotes. “My favorite story,” said Sykes, “was about my own grandmother who was teased for being a slow eater when she was a little girl. It caught my attention because I was teased for the same thing. Seeing that connection made me even more interested to learn about my ancestors and where they came from.”

In college, she completed several family history projects, each one focusing on different family tree branches. (A tree branch, for example, might include the family members on the maternal side of your father; and there would be another branch for family on your father’s paternal side.) Sykes has aunts who have researched family history for years. Success was slow in the beginning. “But in recent years, the Internet has exploded with records, photos, newspaper clippings and census records worldwide,” said Sykes, “and that is making researching family history more exciting.”

Sykes has traced her roots on both her parent’s sides back to the 1500s and 1600s. She received some information after she emailed historical societies in France and Germany requesting help. Her interest and experience in family research helped form the idea behind the “Genealogy Basics” class. “Because of my outward enthusiasm for genealogy, I’ve been known as the ‘guru’ around the library,” Sykes explained. She doesn’t mind the title, though, and is happy to help others with their research.

People call with questions every week, so Kirst is hitting the road and bringing the genealogy class to all of the branches. A more advanced class could be offered in the future because the one-hour class is just a quick overview, and it doesn’t allow enough time to explore the many sites and other resources.

While doing genealogical research, it’s interesting to note that some immigrants changed their names when they arrived in America. Some people may have wanted to shorten their name if it was too long or difficult to spell, or adopt a more Americanized name to fit into their new homeland. Names also can be misspelled in the records, so Kirst advised everyone to try different spellings. Additionally, handwriting from a century or more ago looks different from handwriting today. Letters which are particularly difficult to read are: c, e, h, r, s t. One book which is helpful in deciphering old handwriting is Reading Early American Handwriting. It’s available at GRRL. The library has many books to help with research, including St. Cloud city directories from 1898 -2013, area yearbooks, county histories, immigration indexes and the Minnesota Collection. For descendants of the Pilgrims, there is The Mayflower Index, a reference book including a number of volumes. It lists descendants of the 102 Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower and founded Plymouth Colony in 1620.

In just minutes during the hour-long “Genealogy Basics” class, one person discovered the date and place of her grandparent’s wedding a century ago. But it can take a lot of time to search through records, especially without exact information, such as a birth year. And even a unique name may end up not being so unique after all.

Women and men of all ages are becoming interested in and getting a lot of satisfaction in tracing their roots and learning more about their ancestors and where they came from. Not all are history buffs, and some just want another way to connect with their parents or older relatives. They do research at old cemeteries, courthouses, and history museums. Some travel overseas to search for information and for relatives they have never met.

Sykes said that GRRL plans to start a Genealogy Club so people interested in discovering their family histories can gather monthly in an informal setting, providing an opportunity to share with and support one another. Plans are for this group to begin in September. In addition, the St. Cloud Area Genealogist’s Club meets each month at the Stearns County History Center. For more information on resources at the library or genealogy questions, contact Sykes at

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