DECATUR -- Rebecca Damptz knows that there's a lot of wishful thinking involved when it comes to most people's initial interest in genealogy.
Everyone wants to believe their ancestors came over on the Mayflower or fought in famous battles of the Revolutionary War. But the Decatur Public Library's archivist librarian assures those seeking their family history that although this is certainly a possibility, the reality is often equally interesting.
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"People are usually thrilled to find out their real history, even if it wasn't what they believed growing up," said Damptz, who joined the library team three months ago to assist Decatur-area residents with their genealogical research. "Many retired people find an interest because they think back to their childhoods, remember family stories and wonder, `Was that really true?' They get really excited to find out when their family came to America and from where." By Jim Vorel. Decatur Herald & Review.
For proof of the growing enthusiasm for genealogy, one need look no further than the runaway success of the library's past three weekend genealogy programs. The most recent of the filled-to-capacity programs was held Sept. 22, presented by Decatur Genealogical Society President Gail A. Leonard. She said genealogy is more popular than ever.
"As you get older, you wonder where you came from or how you became the person that you are today," Leonard said. "It has come back in force today as a very popular hobby for average people. There are even television programs like `Who Do You Think You Are?' on NBC and `Finding Your Roots' on PBS that trace celebrity family trees and give great exposure to genealogy."
This interest has resulted in booming business for professional genealogy companies such as Ancestry.com, which has millions of clients and access to billions of records. The Decatur library uses its own edition of Ancestry.com along with a service called Heritage Quest to help local residents navigate these records free of charge.
"These programs let you access things like Census records without sitting at a microfilm machine going through them all," Damptz said. "There's such a huge curiosity to find out things like, `I want to know what happened to my family, where they lived and what they did.' And a lot of these people making use of the service don't have the money to pay a professional genealogist to do the research for them, so this is particularly valuable."
For some local genealogy enthusiasts, this research has become even more than a casual hobby. Sandy Baker, a retired Decatur resident, has had a deep interest in history ever since she was in junior high and can be found at the library almost every day, seeking proof of that next elusive ancestral connection to the past.
"It's like a puzzle, and when I find something out, it's like Christmas for me," said Baker, who remembers quizzing her grandmother as a child about her family's German roots. "I've been really blessed to find out such interesting information. The technology today is astounding."
Through the use of library records and many other sources of data, Baker said she's been able to trace back practically all the way to the end of medieval Europe, drawing distant relation to the lineages of historical figures such as George Washington, Henry I of England and Charlemagne. She's also helped others with research, even finding birth parents for several acquaintances by searching the records.
"I just love the history part of it," she said. "Wouldn't anyone want to see how their ancestors lived and how hard their lives were? And the more you learn about them, the more you realize that they made you what you are today. The people start coming alive to you."
Programs such as the one held at the library last week show people how to begin their research by filling out the appropriate forms, according to Leonard. These sessions also may serve as a jumping-off point for more in-depth research, as the Decatur Genealogical Society is beginning a four-week series of classes Thursday for $25 per person.
Decatur residents who are interested in making a first foray into genealogy also can visit the library on a typical week day and seek out Damptz, who is happy to start their journey of historical and ancestral exploration.
"We have access to things like obituary records that go back all the way to the 1880s, and the Census records," she said. "We have yearbooks that go all the way back, and that includes the original Decatur High School. I'm a trained archivist, but to this point in my career, I've mostly been helping put these collections together, so I haven't really been able to help people find this information. So when I can actually help someone now, it's a great feeling."