Genealogy library offers a window into the past


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ST. THOMAS - In a clean and bright room on St. Thomas, buried treasure is waiting to be found.

The Caribbean Genealogy Library, founded in 2000, holds a treasure trove of historical documents to help Virgin Islanders trace their family trees.

Loaded with resources and knowledgeable volunteers passionate about research, the tiny nonprofit library is the only one of its kind in the Caribbean region - and people travel from across the globe to use its valuable resource.

"We get a lot of inquiries from around the world, people who are finding they had ties to the Virgin Islands," library President Rob Upson said.

The library was founded by Elisabeth Swinson Sharp - Upson's late mother-in-law - who was born and raised on St. Thomas, where her father served as rector of All Saints Cathedral and Archdeacon of the Diocese. During the course of her life, Sharp developed a passion for genealogical research and helped found the Immigrant Genealogy Library in Burbank, Calif.

At the end of her life, she returned to St. Thomas to build a genealogy research center for the Caribbean, donating her personal library of materials and books to form the base collection.

Many of the materials in the Caribbean Genealogy Library also are found at the public Baa Library, the Danish Archives and the National Archives.

"If you can't make the trip up to the National Archives, you can come here," Upson said.

Computers and microfilm readers are available for scrolling through old newspapers, church records, land records and Danish census data. The materials include records from St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John.

"Old Virgin Islands census records are really, really valuable for genealogy research," library board member Jane Sheen said.

The library has subscriptions to Ancestry.com, which can be accessed through the library's computers. The library also has access privileges to all microfilm resources of the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Family History Library specializes in records used for genealogical research worldwide. So, even if a family history is located outside the Virgin Islands, the Caribbean Genealogy Library can be a useful tool for tracking down lost relatives or learning more about them.

For people with Caribbean roots outside the territory, the library has public records from other islands as well, including slavery and bondage, probate, maps, cemeteries, civil registrations like marriages and divorces, and vital statistics such as birth and death records.

Funeral booklets seem to be unique to the territory, and the library collects them as important historical documents.

"Funeral booklets turn out to be a wonderful resource," Sheen said.

Upson said the library has more than 1,000 booklets and always is accepting more - new or old.

Putting together a family tree is tough and requires patience, but the volunteer librarians always are willing to help out.

"It's research work. It's not for the faint-hearted," Sheen said.

Located in Al Cohen's Plaza on Raphune Hill, next door to Mango Tango Art Gallery, the Caribbean Genealogy Library is open Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. Upson said new volunteers are being trained, and he hopes to expand the hours of operation soon.

"The more volunteers we have, the more we can be open," he said.

People also can volunteer to help work on specific research projects that the library always has going. Upson is working with the St. Thomas Historical Trust on the Step Street project - looking through old census records to find out who used to live or work on the old step streets in Charlotte Amalie. The work done so far can be seen on the library's website, rootsweb.com/~vicgl. Many of the library's resources also are found on the website.

Sheen said the library also has computer programs and software to help researchers build a family tree.

The library's annual meeting is 2 p.m. Saturday at Randy's Bistro. All are welcome to learn more about the library and meet other members. Board member and genealogist Nadine Marchena Kean will give a presentation on a new database documenting St. Thomas cemeteries. A copy of the database has been donated to the library by the developer, Maria Elena Smith. Kean will speak on the importance of documenting cemetery records, how to use the database and why it is important for genealogical research.

People can buy day passes to the library for $5, or annual memberships - $10 for students, $35 for individuals, $50 for families. Memberships and donations are tax deductible.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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