SURREY — When Lorraine Irving, Barb Nielsen, Eunice Robinson, Marnie Ingvaldson and Corrine Jubb are gathered in the same room together, the collective passion for genealogy is palpable.
On an early-March morning, they’re seated at a table in an end unit of a Newton warehouse complex, in an out-of-the-way space filled with books belonging to the British Columbia Genealogical Society (BCGS).
It’s a hub for family historians from across the province, and the five women at the table talk excitedly about the subject.
“It’s just become a passion,” Nielsen said.
“It’s about preserving history.”
Ingvaldson nodded in agreement.
“Genealogists are the most sharing, caring people – very generous,” she remarked. “We get a high from it. It’s addictive.”
The society’s current president, Eunice Robinson, who lives in North Delta, says Surrey is a hub for genealogy, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “the study of family ancestral lines.”
Robinson dubs the Surrey area a “Genealogy Triangle,” one that includes the society’s well-stocked Walter Draycott Memorial Library, the archives of Cloverdale public library and also Surrey Family History Center, a Mormon church-operated facility located in the 6200-block of 126th Street.
“The Mormons put on a Finding Your Roots seminar every year in October, and if you go to that, you’d go, ‘Oh my gosh, where did all these people come from?’” Robinson noted. “It’s well over 300 or 400 people there sometimes, and those are people who are all interested in family history. And some people will only sit on their computer and do that kind of research and don’t interact with other genealogists, which is what we find, belonging to this society, as being such an advantage.”
Robinson and the other women interviewed by the Now-Leader are among the most active of the BCGS’s 450 members, many of whom live across the province and even overseas.
The society, whose library includes more than 16,000 books, periodicals, CDs and microfilmed records, boasts more than 40 years of encouraging and preserving family-history research.
In addition to B.C. history, special-interest-group areas of the library are, according to its brochure, “Canada, computer, DNA, England, Europe, First Nations, Ireland, Métis, Quebec, Scandanavia, Scotland (and) U.S.A.”
The library has been located in the Newton warehouse for around 25 years, according to Robinson, who joined the society in 1973 and has helped the organization grow over the past four decades.
Draycott’s name adorns the valuable library because, in his will, the avid genealogist bequeathed money to the society to buy warehouse space and open such a facility, at #211-12837 76th Ave.
“He lived to be over 100,” Robinson said of Draycott, who lived in North Vancouver. “He was an early member (of the society) and we were lucky to be one of his beneficiaries. We needed a home, after moving from one basement of a house to another for a few years. We kept packing things up and moving around, until this space came along. It was an empty warehouse space, and volunteers came and did the drywalling and painting, the work, and then we moved in. It was quite exciting.”
Over the years, donated books have added to the organization’s abilities to help people research their family histories. Meetings are held, courses offered, and guidance encouraged.
“All kinds of people come here and visit and go through all of these books,” Robinson said during a tour of the library. “Not everything is on the internet, despite what people think. Yes, books are being digitized, but not everything. You look at the books in here, there is a lot of information where people can find more about their family history.”
The society’s website (bcgs.ca) expands on the subject: “Researching your own family tree is rewarding – and fun! No matter where in the world your family is from, we can help. Our members have been researching, preserving and publishing their own family histories and that of British Columbia, Canada’s families since 1971. Our Society’s is 46 years old, and our website is among the first genealogy sites – for 21 years.”
As a genealogist, Ingvaldson raves about the benefits of socializing, not burying one’s head in a computer as the only way to get research done.
Turns out, Ingvaldson and Nielsen are related, and the only way they discovered that bit of information is by talking about their family histories.
“My uncle’s wife – her mother’s sister, the descendants from there, is where she (Nielsen) comes from,” explained Ingvaldson, who lives in the Morgan Creek area.
That thrill of discovery is what drives these genealogists.
“I was on a cruise ship in Machu Picchu,” Ingvaldson recalled. “We happened to be walking the trail behind four people (and) overheard them talking about being from Altlanta, Georgia. At lunch time I went over to them and asked them about where they lived, and I told them I have a cousin in Atlanta. Well, I told them about my cousin’s husband, who is a developer and has his name on billboards there, and they replied, ‘Oh, you don’t mean Puddin’ and Ralph, do ya?’ They were best friends, had just been at their 50th wedding anniversary and their kids babysat the other’s kids. Those connections happen. It gives me goosebumps just talking about it.”
Robinson is an avid family historian in a family with none others quite like her – so far. Years ago, she coined the phrase “non-gen,” as in “non-genealogist,” as a way to refer to those who aren’t attracted to the study.
“My husband is the original non-gen,” she said with a laugh. “Like, he is not interested in this stuff at all, and my sons aren’t really either. So I’ve told them both they had to produce a genealogist – I don’t care who or how many, so I’ve got four choices. There’s nothing yet at the moment. I mean, they don’t mind listening to stories about the great greats, but nobody’s really keen at this point.”
Robinson, Ingvaldson and the others who talked to the Now-Leader are all retired. One worked as an ICBC adjustor, one owned a water company, another worked for the airlines. One was a bookkeeper and yet another worked in an IT department. The point is, genealogists come from varied backgrounds, apparently.
“There are a number of men who are active with us, but there are probably more women than men involved,” Robinson noted.
“We have a fairly good mix, but it does seem that more women get actively involved in genealogy,” Ingvaldson added.
“We have meetings in Burnaby once a month, and probably a third of those who come are men.”
The society’s library in Newton is open from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For non-members of the organization, a $5-a-day entry fee applies.
“We have some people come from Salt Spring Island, for example, and they can’t get here during those days, so we have volunteers who come on other days, by special appointment,” Robinson explained.
Special projects for the society include publishing books, including one from the 1990s that researched and indexed the family histories of the close to 500 people on the original Vancouver voters list of 1886. The result is a phone-book-sized tome prized by members of the group.
“We took the 500 names and had a whole group of people do research about those people on the voters list, from that point in time right up to that year,” Robinson recalled. “This book is fully indexed, and it’s a marvelous book. It’s massive, and we now have this digitized and it’s on our computer, so somebody researching that can bring in a USB and download the information. And we have some extra copies of the book here, too.”
Book-indexing is a valuable service for family historians, and that time-consuming work is done by members of BCGS.
“Many books were written about British Columbia, which is our focus, but with some of them, the author didn’t index them,” Robinson said. “So we got into indexing the books – by hand, on typewriters, whatever. So we got into it and have these four binders and rekeyed these lists into Excel, and we started off with about 62,000 names in this database, and we’re now over 106,000. There were four of us typing and finished the four binders, and then we discovered another 150 books in the library that had not been indexed, and then started to do those. Even the skinny ones can have over 1,000 names in them.”
It’s the kind of volunteer work that excites Robinson and the others.
“All of us, we continue to research our own families, of course, but the thrill is also helping others, because it makes us happy…. We’re excited to help people get started at this.”
The next special event hosted by the BCGS is a “DNA & Me” seminar, on Saturday, April 7 at the Firefighters Banquet & Conference Centre in Burnaby. The $55-a-ticket event ($75 for non-members) will include a keynote speech by Mary Katheryn Kozy on DNA testing, which has helped many genealogists “break through long-standing brick walls in their research,” according to the BCGS.