For local genealogist and family historian Bonnie Bohnet, digging through public records is about more than uncovering the names of longdead relatives.
It's about how people lived and what that means for those still living.
"They get a sense of being, where they came from in life," Bohnet said. "They're not the only one struggling in life, because the family struggled (and) they can see those struggles through genealogy."
This history and the surprising details - her husband's great-great-great-great-great grandfather had 42 children - is what she looks for as she and other genealogists track down family histories during the weekly genealogy help session at the Fitchburg Public Library.
The free drop-in session, every Thursday from 1 to 4 p.
The Gardner Public Library, Townsend Library, Townsend Senior Center and, most recently, the Leominster Public Library also host programs. "If you listen to the ads, all you think (Is all I) have to do is spit in a tube and I'll find out everything about me," said Carol Bosworth, who runs the session in Leominster with Bohnet. "It doesn't work that way."
The aging books lining the walls of a small room where the researchers gather in the the Fitchburg Public Library aren't just for atmosphere, said Bonnie Sweatman who leads the Fitchburg session, also with Bohnet.
One of the volumes, such as a fraying copy of the 1871-72 Fitchburg Directory, could be the key to tracking down the ancestors of someone from the stream of newcomers and regulars that stop by the weekly help session in Fitchburg.
If the books don't have the information linking the present to the past, genealogy help websites, records posted online and calls to city clerks, the keepers of decades of birth and marriage certificates, might.
Most people come in hoping to find the kings, queens and famous ancestors in their lineage, according to Sweatman and Bohnet. Sometimes, they do.
"My favorite stories were the stories of Daniel Boone," Sweatman said. "Little did I know he is my six time great-uncle."
Bohnet's grandmother wanted to look into her family's past for more personal reasons.
"She spent most of her adult life trying to figure out who she was," Bohnet said. "She was adopted. She knew she was adopted, but her parents would never tell her who her biological parents were."
Bohnet, the youngest child, was tasked with driving her grandmother to the courthouse and the library to uncover her past.
Bohnet said she enjoys looking at family history in the context of local or world events, such as why did her husband's ancestor have 42 children?
"My husband's answer would be because they didn't have any television, but that's his answer for everything," she joked. Her take: Catherine the Great was giving 100 acres of land for every male child at the time. She believes her husband's ancestor wanted to be a land baron.
One of the regular visitors to the Fitchburg session, Fitchburg resident Louise Condon had a relative she knew had been married more than once. Digging deeper she said she discovered the woman was actually married seven times.
"You always have a certain number of scoundrels," Bohnet said.
After taking a look at his family's past, Stephen Twining of Fitchburg discovered he had an ancestor who fought in the Civil War. This spurred his current research project: documenting every person with a Fitchburg connection that enlisted during the Civil War.
His book, over 1,000 pages and counting, lists biographical information about the soldiers and sometimes pictures of their faces or homes.
"When someone comes into the library and they're looking for information on Civil War soldiers, they send them to me," he said. Bohnet said one of her favorite experiences was a man who came in looking for information on his family, but had some trouble filling out basic information like his parent's names.
Together, they were eventually able to confirm some names and Bohnet traced his ancestry back over 10 generations, which she believes is close to accurate.
She sent the information to the man who was living in a group home for people with mental disabilities. The man, she was told, reads the list of names everyday.
"I don't care whether it's real or not," she said. "It satisfied his need."
As more and more records get uploaded to the internet, genealogical research should become easier to access in coming years, Bosworth said. However, it's still easy to make mistakes.
"A lot of it is hearing things and just assuming it's correct," Sweatman said. "They really need to document and cite their sources."
Though Sweatman said she and Bohnet don't do all the research for people, the two have helped people get started and get past sticking points at the library for nearly 10 years.
"I was trying to think last night how many people have we helped, but I can't even begin to tell you," Bohnet said. "It's in the hundreds."
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @DobbinsSentinel.