National Archives Genealogy Fair Offers Tips on Tracing Family Histories

Popularity of researching familial roots on the rise

By: Debra Bruno

More than 2,500 people attended the 2010 genealogy fair at the National Archives. This year's event starts Wednesday. Photo courtesy National Archives.

My ancestor Lambert Van Valkenburg might have made one of the worst land deals in history. Lambert, who came to this country from Holland in the 1640s, bought a parcel of land making up about 50 acres in mid-town Manhattan. A couple years later, he sold the land to a guy named van Rosenvelt, ancestor of the Roosevelts.

I just have to know more.

And thanks to the National Archives' Seventh Annual Genealogy Fair, starting Wednesday, I can figure out just what happened to my ill-fated relative before this country was even formed.

Much of the family histories in America, a relatively young country, are written down in one form or another. And thanks to television shows such as NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? and a growing ability to do more research online, each year more people show up at the Archives to learn about their roots. When the event started seven years ago, some 300 people showed up. This year, organizers expect around 3,000 at the fair, which runs through Thursday.

"People want to know their family history," says Diane Dimkoff, director of customer services for the Archives. "My favorite thing we do is to have a table staffed by five or six professional genealogists called 'Help, I'm Stuck.' This year we have a separate line for people just getting started."

Part of the purpose of the fair is to de-mystify the National Archives building, says Dimkoff. "What we found was that people who are afraid to come inside a big, imposing building are much more open to coming into a tent,—where many of the exhibitors will set up, she says. Some exhibitors include the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War's National Grave Registration Project, the St. Mary's County Genealogical Society, and librarians from the local history-and-genealogy reading room at the Library of Congress. Lectures will cover topics ranging from immigration history to military files to records of African American participation in the Revolutionary War.

For people interested in digging through family history, the fair is just the beginning, says Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper. "Everybody has this perception you can do it all online," she says. "But that's really just the tip of the iceberg—we have so many kinds of records that will offer you much more information than you could get online."

This year, the fair will also offer goodies such as a CD with a tutorial on starting a genealogy project, a series of worksheets and family trees, and even a caricaturist who will sketch attendees on paper with an old-fashioned picture frame.

The fair's mascot is Genealogy Dog, a golden retriever wearing an Archives lab coat.

"What we really want to do is take the scariness away and help people understand that everyone has to start somewhere," Dimkoff says. "We tell people, 'do your homework, start at home, talk to grandma and grandpa, look at the family bible.' "

The genealogy fair is free and requires no pre-registration. Participants should enter through the Archives' Pennsylvania Avenue entrance, starting at 9 AM Wednesday. For a full schedule of events, visit the Archives' Web site.

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