Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Genealogy Research in the East Bay via BART

A death certificate from
the Oakland History Room
I've previously written about using BART to travel to genealogical research locations in San Francisco.  It's time to give equal attention to the East Bay.  Since I live in Oakland I often drive to these places, but parking in downtown Oakland and Berkeley is comparable to San Francisco, so being able to take BART lets you avoid that mess.

The first stop on our East Bay research tour is Lake Merritt station.  Follow the exit signs toward 9th Street, and you'll see a very large sign that says "Superior Court."  Exit at that corner, and when you come up above ground, you'll be at the corner of 9th Street and Oak Street.  That puts you five blocks from the main branch of the Oakland Public Library, four blocks from the Alameda County Administration Building and Superior Court, and three blocks from the Alameda County Clerk-Recorder.

If you're taking a train from Pittsburg/Bay Point, Millbrae, or SFO, you need to transfer to a Fremont or Dublin/Pleasanton train get to the Lake Merritt station.  Instead of waiting for a connecting train, you might want to get off at the 12th Street/Convention Center station, though it's a longer walk.

Similar to the San Francisco Public Library, the Oakland Public Library has two important resources for genealogists:  the Oakland History Room and the Newspaper and Magazine Room.  The History Room is on the second floor of the library and has information and records primarily about Oakland, but also for other cities in Alameda County.  Probably the most significant items are original Oakland birth and death certificates from 1870–1904, before the state of California began collecting vital records, but you can also look at a complete collection of Oakland city directories (1869–1943); Alameda County voter registers (1867–1944); Tax Assessor's block books for Oakland (1877–1925); various Sanborn fire insurance map books from between 1882–1951; photographs of Oakland, Piedmont, and Emeryville; vertical files of newspaper clippings; several local high school yearbooks; information on the origins of street names for Oakland and Berkeley; and more.  There are indices to several local newspapers and to articles in books and magazines.  Staff will do free look-ups and will mail you copies of items for a small fee.  The Newspaper and Magazine Room, which is at the other end of the second floor from the History Room, has the complete historical run of the Oakland Tribune on microfilm, along with many other local newspapers, including a significant number of black newspapers.

The Alameda County Administration Building houses the Superior Court records office and the Tax Assessor.  The records office, on the basement level, holds probate and civil indices and microfilms.  If the records you want to look at have not been microfilmed, they'll have to be retrieved from storage, which can take several days.  Unlike San Francisco, there is no charge to request records from storage.  Also, some records may be housed at different courts.  Criminal records apparently are treated similarly.  The Tax Assessor's office is on the first floor.  You can walk in and ask the nice people there to look up who owns a property.  I've been told it's possible to get complete tax records for a property, but I haven't done that myself (yet).

The Alameda County Clerk-Recorder holds birth, marriage, and death records from 1905 to the present and land records dating back to the 19th century.  There are no restrictions on who can order an informational copy of vital records in California, but more recent records may have some names, such as the medical examiner on a death record, redacted (privacy laws).  The Recorder section has computerized and microfilm indices and records for land transactions and fictitious business name registrations.  A computer with an in-house index for vital records includes records that occurred after the published indices end.

The 12th Street station is the closest one to the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO).  Exit toward Ogawa Plaza and then head west on 14th Street.  AAMLO is about four blocks away.  AAMLO is a great resource for researching the black communities of the Bay Area and California.  It has diaries, oral histories, videos, newspapers, and other materials relating to local people and organizations.  It also has general resources relating to black history in the United States and important historical individuals.

Our next stop is the 19th Street station in Oakland, the closest station to the California Genealogical Society and Library (CGS), as Kathryn Doyle pointed out in my post about San Francisco genealogy locations.  You can follow the exit toward Broadway and 20th or the one toward 20th; either way you'll have to cross a street (20th for the former, Broadway for the latter) to get to the corner with the beautiful green I. Magnin building.  Then walk up Broadway two blocks, cross one more intersection, and turn left to enter the old Breuner Building, where you will find CGS on the lower level.  CGS has resources not only for California but for the entire United States, as so many people came to California from other places.  Its extensive library includes books, manuscripts, and microfilm.  It also offers genealogy classes throughout the year, including an introduction to genealogy the first Saturday of the month.  Several databases are available on the Web site and in the library.  The library is open to all, but nonmembers must pay a $5 user fee, except for the first Saturday of the month.

Continuing further up the Richmond line (but passing MacArthur and Ashby stations), the Berkeley station puts you not too far from Bancroft Library on the University of California campus and in easy walking distance of the Berkeley Public Library and the Berkeley Historical Society.  If you're going to Bancroft, exit the station via the plaza escalator.  Go east on Center Street, cross Oxford, and enter the campus on Grinnell Pathway.  Turn left on Campanile Way.  After about three "blocks" distance, you'll come to Doe Library; Bancroft is on the east end of the building, with the entrance on South Hall Road.  Bancroft is primarily an archive, with collections of Western Americana, Mark Twain papers, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, and the university archives, among others.  It also has a significant photograph collection, much of which is being digitized.  Generally, you need to page materials ahead of time (which is a whole separate post!), but some reference materials are on the shelves.

To go to the Berkeley Public Library, follow the signs at the Berkeley station to exit at Shattuck and Allston on the west side of the station.  When you come up above ground, walk south one more block and you'll be at the library.  The big attraction for researchers here is the Berkeley History Room, which has city directories and phone books, Berkeley High and University of California yearbooks, Sanborn insurance maps, the Berkeley Daily Gazette from 1894–1983, oral histories, photographs, maps, and more.

For the Berkeley Historical Society, exit the Berkeley station through the plaza escalator and head west two blocks on Center Street.   The society's History Center has a library and an archive.  I've been told it has Berkeley High School yearbooks (including some years that the Berkeley History Room doesn't have) and a photograph collection, but I haven't actually made it there yet to see for myself.

One very important genealogical location that BART doesn't reach directly is the Oakland FamilySearch Library.  The closest station is Fruitvale.  When you exit the station, to the right is a large board listing the AC Transit buses that leave from the station.  The board also has a handy map showing the bays from which each bus departs.  Currently the #39 bus will take you to the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Monterey Boulevard (but AC Transit has changed this route several times, so the specific bus line might be different when you go).  From there walk back down the hill a little to the entrance of the LDS temple campus and follow the signs to the Visitors' Center/Family History Center (the former name of the FamilySearch Library).  The library is on the lower level of the building.  Before you walk in, make sure you enjoy the beautiful view of the bay.

The Oakland FamilySearch Library is a branch of the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah (the mother lode of genealogy libraries).  It is a noncirculating genealogy library with almost 10,000 print items, 38,000 microfilm reels, and 10,000 microfiche.  The collection has a strong regional focus, so you will find lots of records about California (particularly the Bay Area Portuguese community), but there is something for almost everyone here.  The San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society (SFBAJGS) regularly donates publications and microfilm, so the library has a significant number of Jewish research resources.  The 75 computers have access to more than a dozen subscription genealogy Web sites, including Ancestry.com, FindMyPast.co.uk, NewspaperArchive.com, and Fold3.com.  Classes are offered regularly, and several genealogical groups, including SFBAJGS and CGS, hold meetings, classes, and events in the library.

A really interesting set of records is at another location that requires you to take an extra step after getting to the BART station.  Go to the Hawyard station and take the shuttle to California State University of the East Bay.  In the university library's special collections is a set of original Alameda County voter registration forms from 1875–1925.  Most of this type of record around the country were destroyed, so these are unusual survivors.  This particular set includes a record for author Jack London.  The library also has collections of historical slavery documents and World War II Japanese relocation materials.

So far I've only discussed Alameda County locations, but Contra Costa County is also in the East Bay.  I don't know of anything you can get to directly by BART, but some core repositories are reachable by BART and a bus connection.  The Contra Costa County Clerk, Superior Court, and Historical Society are all in downtown Martinez.  The best way to get there by BART is to go to the Walnut Creek station and take the County Connection #98X (express) line to the Amtrak station, which is only a short walk from the three locations.  You can also take a bus to Amtrak from Pleasant Hill (#18), Concord (#16, #19), and North Concord (#28/627), but the bus lines from those stations take significantly longer.

The Contra Costa County Clerk's office has birth, marriage, and death records, land records, and fictitious business name filings.  Searchable indices are online and on computers in the clerk's building.  The Superior Court records office holds records for closed cases, which are what genealogists usually deal with.  The Contra Costa County Historical Society's History Center is an archive with photographs and original documents relating to the history of the county.

I realize it seems as though I'm giving Contra Costa County short shrift, but I don't know of other genealogy research locations that are easily BARTable.  For example, the Plesasant Hill branch of the Contra Costa County Library has a genealogy collection, and members of the Contra Costa County Genealogical Society volunteer at the library and help people with their research—but the closest station is a mile away on the other side of the freeway, and I didn't see a direct bus connection.  If you know of other BART connections, feel free to post a message letting us know!


  1. It's good to see the East Bay getting equal time. One could just take a cab to the Pleasant Hill Library. Bus 9 leaves from WC station, stops at PH station and then goes by the library. Looks like it's only weekdays though.

    1. Thanks for the alternatives, Lisa. Weekdays are fine, because the Recorder and Court Records offices aren't open on weekends anyway, and the CoCo History Center is open one Sunday of the month.

  2. Should know that the Pleasant Hill Library is NOT open on Mondays.


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