WASHINGTON – Mary Alice Khachikian has been searching for her family.
It started as a small project to preserve some family films her grandfather recorded in the 1920s,films her mother had stored for years.
She interviewed her father before he died in July 2003,“but still,so much was missing,” she said. Her mother tried to help,but there were people in the films Khachikian had little hope of identifying.
“And another thing that started this – my father passed away,” said Khachikian of Alexandria,Va. “There was no one else to ask.”
Her search brought her to the National Archives and Records Administration here,where she attended a genealogical fair on a recent morning. Khachikian joined about 100 other researchers at the fair,now in its second year. The archives held the event to help people use federal documents in family history research.
“I'm looking for guidance,” Khachikian said.
Though it's a fraction of the million tourists who visit the archives to see the Declaration of Independence,the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,92,000 people make a trip to the archives to do genealogical research every year.
The archives,which is free,houses about 10 billion pages of text and microfilm documents,said Miriam A. Kleiman,a National Archives public affairs specialist.
People became more interested in genealogy after the television series “Roots” aired in 1977,she said. And archives have become “cool” for a new generation thanks to the 2004 film hit “National Treasure.”
Constance Potter,a reference archivist with expertise in federal documents related to genealogy,said that before coming to the archives to research,people should plan to take time and be prepared.
Potter,who has been at the archives since 1983,offered some advice to researchers.
“Don't go in and think you're going to do this in a couple of hours; give yourself at least a half a day,she said. “And you will stay all day.”
Knowing a name,place,date and why that person would be in the federal records is a necessity,she said. The best place to start is the census,which is released with names after 72 years.
“Theoretically,everybody's on the census,” she said.
People can find when their ancestors arrived in the United States if they came after 1820,Potter said. They can read the War of 1812 or Civil War pension files,family homestead applications and land records,which are available only at the archives.
“You never know what you're going to find or if you're going to find it,” she said. “If you're afraid to find something,then don't look.”
When Khachikian retired from the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Naturalization service in September,she started devoting much of her time to her research.
“No one in my family cares anything about this but me,” she said laughing,not even her son. “Someday.”
Since she started,she has found documents detailing her maternal great grandfather's 1902 arrival from Ireland and New Jersey census records listing a man that could be her paternal great-great grandfather.
But research has its frustrations.
“As you go back,the people just increase exponentially,” she said. “And even if you have the right name,do you have the right person?” she asked.
This was not Khachikian's first visit to the archives,but it might be her last for a little while. She will move soon to her hometown of Brooklyn,N.Y. But her search won't end – there she will be able to visit the archive's Northeast region building.