Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Genealogy Research in San Francisco -- via BART!

Tank photo from the
"Mexican Expedition"
This is a slightly different take on research in San Francisco.  I'm going to approach it from the perspective of getting there.  I live in Oakland, which is on the other side of San Francisco Bay, so any research trip has to take into account getting across the water and into and out of San Francisco.  I love to drive, but I don't like driving in San Francisco.  The streets are narrow, parking is expensive and hard to find (especially near the research locations), and you have to pay a toll to cross the bridge just to get into the city.  So my preferred way to go to San Francisco is by BART!  And conveniently, BART can take you to some of the most important research locations in San Francisco.

The first stop on our BART research tour is Civic Center station.  If you exit the station by following the signs to 8th Street and then to Civic Center, you come out right across the street from the San Francisco Public Library and a mere two to three blocks from the Department of Public Health, City Hall, and Superior Court.

The San Francisco Public Library has two excellent research resources:  the San Francisco History Center and the Magazines and Newspapers Center.  The History Center, on the sixth floor of the library, is the official archive for San Francisco and has a wealth of information available.  There are Sanborn insurance maps for several years, a magnificant photograph collection, annual municipal reports dating back to the 1850's, vertical files with clippings on people and events, and a staff that really knows the holdings.  While you need to visit in person to see much of the material, more and more of it is being placed online, which not only makes it easier for researchers but also helps preserve the originals.  Online resources include a growing collection of the photographs, San Francisco city directories, the Sanborn maps, and a request service for obituaries.  At absolutely no charge, library staff will search San Francisco newspapers for obituaries for you, to a maximum of five requests per month.  If you want to search for yourself, or if you have more than five to look for, the Magazines and Newspapers Center on the fifth floor has microform for many San Francisco newspapers, indices for several newspapers, San Francisco and Oakland city directories and telephone books, and criss-cross directories with listings by street addresses.  Another benefit to going in person to the library is that any California resident can get a library card, which then allows you to use HeritageQuest, the historical San Francisco Chronicle, and the historical New York Times from the comfort of your home.

The Department of Public Health holds birth and death records for San Francisco County for the past three years.  In California anyone can purchase an informational copy of a birth or death certificate; these are marked clearly "not valid for identification" across the faces of the certificates.  And the information is all we need for research, right?

San Francisco City Hall has several offices that can be useful in your research.  The most commonly used are the County Clerk, which holds San Francisco County birth and death records older than three years, and the Assessor-Recorder, which has San Francisco County marriage licenses/certificates and property records.  For the County Clerk you need to know the name and date when you request your record; they don't have an index available.  The Assessor-Recorder has indices for both marriages and property records, so you can do your search on site if necessary.  I have also gone to the Tax Collector and the Small Business Center in search of records.

The Civil Division of San Francisco Superior Court handles probate, divorces, and lawsuits.  The records viewing room is where you head for research.  If you're looking for older records, you'll need to plan on two visits -- one to find a reference for your file, and the second to come back after it has been retrieved from storage (for which you pay a fee, by the way).  If you want to avoid a third visit, remember to bring a self-addressed stamped envelope with you the second time, because you can't get copies on the spot; you have to return the file and request your copies, and they'll be done within the next ten business days.  If you forget the envelope, you're coming back a third time to pick up the copies.

If by chance your research leads you to the seedier side of San Francisco history, the Civic Center station is also the closest one to the Criminal Division of the Superior Court.  This is a little bit more of a walk from BART, maybe fifteen minutes, and from the opposite end of the station.  Room 101 is where you go to look up records and request copies.  Listings for more recent cases are in the main room.  If you want to research older cases, you need to have permission to go into the office area, and you can plow through the old, musty, dusty ledgers.  As with the Civil Division, older files must be retrieved from storage, which can take up to a month, but there's no fee.  So plan on two visits.  I haven't done any research on recent cases, so I don't know if copies of those records can be obtained on your first visit.  I also haven't found any files that I needed copies of, so I don't know if they'll make the copies while you're there.

Our next BART stop for research is the Montgomery Street station.  Here you should follow the signs toward New Montgomery Street.  You'll exit just off New Montgomery.  Head down New Montgomery, turn right on Mission Street, and soon you will arrive at the California Historical Society.  Its library, which is focused solely on California, is open to researchers at no charge.  The collection includes directories, books, photographs, manuscripts, and ephemera such as letters, diaries, and business letterhead.  Of particularly interest are photographs of many San Francisco locations after the 1906 earthquake and fire.  If you are researching people who lived in San Francisco, I highly recommend looking here to see what they might have.

You can't quite get to Sutro Library using only BART.  You can either go to Embarcadero station and take Muni light rail (M line) to San Francisco State University at 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue, or to Daly City station and take a #28 Muni bus to the same corner.  From the Muni stop it's a short walk onto the campus and to the library.

Sutro Library is the genealogical branch of the California State Library system and has the largest genealogy collection west of Salt Lake City.  It holds city directories, local and American history books, and many genealogy and family history books, along with a special collection of Adolph Sutro's rare books and manuscripts.  Among the items in the special collection are two psalters that belonged to King James I of England, a book of drawings from one of James Cook's voyages on the Endeavour, maps galore, Torah scrolls, photo books (including one from a "Mexican expedition" in 1916, which included the tank at the top of this post), Japanese paintings, and Mexican government publications detailings events in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Unlike the California Historical Society, it is not just about California!  And now that Sutro has a permanent location, the staff would love for people to come and use the facility.

One of the best research facilities we have available in this area is the local branch of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  While it isn't actually in San Francisco (it's in San Bruno), its official name is the National Archives at San Francisco, so I'm including it here.  And it is reachable by BART!  Go to the San Bruno station and exit toward Tanforan mall.  Walk around the mall and cross El Camino Real at Commodore Drive, then continue down Commodore until you reach the Archives.  It's about a 20-minute walk.

This branch of the National Archives holds records from northern and central California; Nevada (except Clark County [Las Vegas]); Hawaii; American Samoa; Guam; the Marshall, Caroline, and Northern Mariana Islands; and U.S. Navy bases on foreign territory in the Pacific and Far East.  Along with censuses, ship manifests, ship log books, and naturalizations, there are records from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen's Bureau), Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Federal Aviation Administration, among many others.  There are also genealogy workshops offered.  The Archives has a so much information, and a staff that wants to help you discover information.  This is your tax dollars at work -- use it!

14 comments:

  1. This is a great post! I think that there should be this kind of guide to every major city - where are the research spots and how can you get to them. Could be a book in the making...

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    1. Thank you, Carol! Are you going to be the one who corrals all of us genealogists to make us write up our cities? :)

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  2. Hmmmm....do you have a list of genealogists in various cities?

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    1. There's a list of Association of Professional Genealogists members at http://www.apen.org/. You can search by state, county, or city.

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  3. Thanks! That's handy - especially the San Bruno site. My uncle Harold Clapp was in WWII - DNB (Died Non Battle) - and is buried in the Phillipines.

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  4. I'm glad the site was helpful! Which cemetery is Harold buried in?

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  5. Fort McKinley, (Permanent Cemetery), Manila, Philippine Islands

    Another question - what library locally has the Christian Science Monitor on microfilm?

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    1. San Francisco Public Library has at least back to 1988, based on a quick look at their online catalog. The next best place I would look is the UC Berkeley library. What year(s) are you looking for?

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  6. By the way, it looks like we'll get some spare time for genealogy, starting August 5 (and for a long time)

    Meet me at OHY sometime in the morning (I get there 5 AM) if you want to compare notes, etc.

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  7. Great post, Janice. There is another research stop easily accessible to BART right across the Bay from SF – the California Genealogical Society in Oakland. The library is a three block walk up Broadway from the 19th Street Station.

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    1. Thanks, Kathryn! I didn't include CGS because I was focusing on San Francisco research locations. I need to work on a list for the Oakland area!

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  8. My friend Carol (thanks, Carol!) pointed me to a fascinating repository also reachable from the Civic Center BART station: the Prelinger Library (http://www.prelingerlibrary.org/home/) at 301 8th Street. Exit Civic Center and walk south on 8th Street. The library is just past Folsom Street. There's an article about the library at http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/08/prelinger-library-rare-maps/. It only open Wednesday from 1:00-8:00 p.m. and it's noncirculating, so you'll have to plan ahead for a visit.

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  9. Another San Francisco repository reachable by BART is the Museum of Performance + Design (http://www.mpdsf.org/) at 893B Folsom Street. I have to admit I had forgotten about this museum until I recently received a letter telling me about its move to Folsom (it used to be called the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum and was on Van Ness). It is specialized — the focus is on the history of the performing arts in the San Francisco Bay area — but if you had family members involved in theater, dance, music, radio, opera, and more, the resources range from the Gold Rush era to the present. The nearest station is Powell; exit toward 5th Street, turn south on 5th, and turn left on Folsom.

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