OAKLAND — A Smith by any other name could very well be a Smythe, and something so sub-tle as such a shift in spelling has been known to produce long-standing mysteries in many a family history.

"We had someone come in who said a man in his family had the last name of Drinkwine," said Jane Lindsey, president of the California Genea-logical Society in downtown Oakland. "I told him it was more likely Boisvin, the French version. He didn't believe me at first, but we ended up finding the information that way. People sometimes have blinders on as to how their family spells a certain name, but you have to be open to possibilities."

Indeed, the researchers and genealogy experts at the CGS know all about such delicate distinctions, plus a million other techniques and tools to tie the present to the past.

And right now is a really good time to explore these methods, because October is national Family History Month and the CGS is offering several free workshops and seminars on research techniques, plus opportunities to use the library.

With research of family trees growing to one of the biggest hobbies in the nation (Lindsey says it's second only to stamp collecting, but much more fun), genealogy has clearly become an addiction for many people.

"We're here to help," Lindsey said, smiling an enabling grin. "But be advised that once you get started, you won't want to stop."

Founded in 1898, the society exists with the principal purpose of helping people trace and compile their family histories.


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It has become one of the leading genealogical resources in Nor-thern California with a collection of more than 30,000 genealogical references, 2,500 reels of microfilm, a large selection of CDs, dozens of maps and hundreds of reference books. They have passenger lists, periodicals, vital records, lineage charts and city directories dat-ing to the early 1880s.

"I've been all over the country doing research, and I never ran across a collection of this size, and with people who are so competent in specialized areas," said CGS's Nancy Peterson, who has written a book called "Rak-ing the Ashes: Genealogical Strategies for Pre-1906 San Francisco Research."

CGS specializes in tracking ancestors who lived in California, but also has information from many other states, especially in New England. The society subscribes to Web sites that provide access to census and other searchable databases.

"More and more younger people are getting interested in their histories," Lindsey said. "It used to be just retired people who had plenty of time. Now we're getting a lot of people in their 30s and 40s — even some 20s. People want to find out where they came from."

Easy access to information on the Internet is one reason so many people have gotten involved. But professional researchers say that has a good side and a bad side.

"The good is that you have immediate access to information and to people all over the world," Lindsey said. "It's also bad, though, because it's not always accurate information that gets spread around."

"People are doing research at home," Peterson said. "But the problem is they believe what they find. They assume if it's on the Internet, it's right. If anything, you should assume it might be wrong."

Researcher Colleen Huntley suggests using online information merely as a lead. "Then you need to track down hard evidence," she said.

And therein lies the fun, Peterson said.

"What interests me are the stories that you uncover in the process," she said. "It's so exciting when I find people married to more than one person at a time, or getting in trouble with the law, or other wild tales. It fascinates me."

Some research is easy. Some is more difficult, such as when someone comes in and says his aunt told him he is descended from someone like Daniel Boone and he wants to prove it, Peterson said.

"It doesn't work that way," she said. "In genealogy, we work from the present to the past. If you start with an ancestor and work down — that person may have had nine kids and each one of them had nine and it just gets so vast and complicated from there. Instead, you have to start with you, and go back systematically."

In addition, some research-ers say that — even 100 years ago — at least 10 percent to 15 percent of children are not related to the father of record.

"A lot of people are now doing DNA studies, comparing their DNA to relatives if available," Lindsey said. "We had one man who had been collecting thousands of names for years. He decided to do a DNA study and it turned out he wasn't related to the family at all."

Lindsey says people should take DNA research with a grain of salt, however. "It's as good as it can be right now," she said. "But when we look back on it in the future, we may be seeing discrepancies. Basically, we use it as just another tool. Not the final answer."

Also, you can't always find all the answers on the spot. "Sometimes people leave discouraged," Peterson said. "But if you hang in there, there are usually ways.

"This is like detective work," Lindsey said. "It appeals to people who like puzzles and mysteries.

CGS offers memberships, but also provides research on an hourly basis. Fees are $20 an hour for nonmembers, and the cost covers research, analysis, documentation and reporting of results. Nonmembers are welcome to use the library for a $5 reader's fee, and the first Saturday of each month is free.

The library can be used for free throughout October.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. CGS is at 1611 Telegraph Ave., Suite 100, Oakland. For more information, call (510) 663-1358 or visit their Web site,

www.calgensoc.org.