Ladders To Help Climb Your Family Tree

John Adams' addiction began when he looked up his coat of arms for a signet ring he wanted made. Now, he can't stop scaling his family tree. "I've tracked ancestors back to the 10th century," says Adams, who pores over 18th century marriage certificates and 16th century wills when not running his Baytown (Tex.) mortgage firm.

Thousands of Americans have caught the genealogy bug, aided by computer programs designed to help organize the research and by special libraries such as the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research in Houston. Why is the hobby so popular? Many people are intrigued by family roots, especially when they discover a forebear who is "slightly criminal and chock-full of colorful exploits," says Helen Leary, past president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists in Falmouth, Va. And in a fragmented society, genealogy gives people a sense of self and security. "When you feel the ground beneath you is not firm, it's comforting to grab on to your family tree," she says.

OLD BONES. To get started, Leary recommends collecting birth, marriage, and death certificates, obituaries, diaries, wills, letters, and Bibles of family members, past and present. Such items verify relations, validate family lore, and provide insights into ancestors' personalities. Carolyn Nell, president of the National Genealogical Society in Arlington, Va. (703 525-0050), urges researchers to visit their oldest relative as soon as possible: "When that person dies, you've lost an invaluable resource."

At the point when family members and their personal papers can no longer answer the questions, it's time to tap public resources. The largest is the Family History Dept. of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) in Salt Lake City (801 240-2331). Founded in 1894 to keep track of its members' histories, the library has close to 2 million reels of microfilmed records containing 200 million names, with 7 million added each year. The resource is free and open to everyone, regardless of religion.

If Salt Lake City isn't on your agenda, try one of the 1,600 LDS family-history centers scattered throughout the U.S. and abroad. The centers are in Mormon churches and offer some of the same computerized and microfilmed references as the main library. They all have a complete index to the LDS collection and can requisition its holdings.

Most big cities have genealogical facilities as part of the library system. Here are sources on how to get the records needed to learn, say, why a certain Great-great-uncle Ned was arrested.

And to help chronicle the life of your colorful progenitor, myriad software programs are available. Choices range from the easy-to-use Personal Ancestral File (PAF) ($35), distributed by LDS, to the multifaceted Roots IV ($159) from COMMSOFT. While PAF is capable of simple data entry and family charting, Roots IV can accept scanned-in images and can diagram nontraditional family structures such as those that include illegitimate children. Be sure the software you choose eperates under the GEDCOM (genealogical data communications) file format. It allows seamless transfer of information between such programs.

Whether your family's records are stored in a three-ring binder or a computer, the case is never closed. Too bad Great-great-uncle Ned didn't take up genealogy. It might have kept him out of trouble.

Genealogy Resources

-- Genealogy in the Computer Age: Understanding Family Search by Elizabeth L. Nichols ($9.95; Family History Educators)

-- Genealogy Online: Researching Your Roots by Elizabeth Powell Crane ($29.95; McGraw-Hill)

-- Where to Write for Vital Records: Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces (U.S. Health & Human Services Dept., Aug., 1987, Publication No. [PHS] 87-1142). For a copy, write: Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402


Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.