Portal to the Past

By Rebecca Lee Moody   |   February 15, 2022
The Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society’s Sahyun Library is located at 316 Castillo Street

Fifteen years ago, gripped by the idea of initiating a dig into my peoples’ past, I flew straight to the very big and famous (in genealogical circles) Family History Library in Salt Lake City. My plan was to spend a few days immersed in productive research and come away with a nicely-plumped-out family tree full of unearthed, so to speak, discoveries. 

What actually happened was I went, walked in, sat down and tapped a few details (names, birthdates, countries of origin) into a computer and then waited for the magic to happen. It did, but way too much. Meaning, so many connections and directions to historical records, relations, and lines of family descent came up that I got overwhelmed and walked out. And that was that; the beginning of the mission was also its end. 

Until last Thursday, when hope for such a project arose anew. I was driving down Castillo and saw what I’ve seen many times, but never visited: the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society’s Sahyun Library. I decided, that day, to stop by and found within a fantastically well-stocked den of assistance and answers for anyone interested in their ancestors. Even better, it doesn’t matter if one knows a lot, or next to nothing about how to conduct, organize, and process research resources. Help is on the way.

Here’s how it works. You can just stop in. Heading towards the beach, just past the underpass the library’s driveway is to the immediate left and leads to a large lot surrounded by a few small buildings, including a lovely old Victorian house. I parked in a spot next to a mini-grove of redwood and pine trees living between the lot and the freeway and must say, while I generally don’t find car lots aesthetically notable, this one’s actually cute and lovely with its historic-looking streetlamp, manicured greenery, and even a tiny native plant garden complete with signs explaining what’s in there.

I wandered around a bit before going into the main building and found around its side a peaceful and flowery (lavender and roses) patio at the end of a curvy brick path. There’re a couple of benches there, where I imagined one could have a snack or lunch while on a break from their research activities inside. En route back to the library’s entrance, I stopped for a minute in its inner courtyard, which has a big orange tree in the center and a plaque on the wall reading, “Jan’s Retreat.”

The Sahyun Library’s lobby has a bunch of new books for sale (many fresh selections purchased during the pandemic closure period), as well as a rack of used ones. The day I dropped in there was also a volunteer at the desk who couldn’t have been more welcoming. When I mentioned my failed expedition to Utah, how the massive collection of records there was too much of a good thing, she very nicely went straight to explaining the bottom-level basics of how to do family research. Her super-easy instructions also involved the single slice of paper she pulled from a file and handed me. Its title was, “My First ‘Sweet Sixteen’ Ancestors Chart.” 

A tour of the library followed and at 2,600 square feet the place is bigger than I’d imagined. Along one wall of the main room are computers (both PCs and Macs) for visitors’ use and in the middle are tables where you can stake out with your own laptop, if you prefer. In an adjoining area are tall rows of hand-built oak library shelves holding books organized by state. Another volunteer pointed out what was within various sections, each of which is broken down into counties. Periodically pulling out a volume, she described how lists of passengers on boats to Ellis Island are documented and even looked up one of my great-grandparents. There are specialty sections, too, such as the Jewish genealogy area.

Also in the Sahyun are periodicals, CDs, video, and audio tapes, maps, microfilm, printers and more (including Santa Barbara County schools’ yearbooks) as well as access to a variety of genealogy subscription sites. It’s not a lending library, but anyone can stop in and use those things (a small donation is requested for non-members). Membership brings a bunch of additional benefits like the coaches they have available to help, publications such as the newsletter “Tree Tips,” plus specialty classes and unique occurrences like “Picnic in the Cemetery.”

There have been five of the graveyard gatherings so far, the last of which happened in 2021 at the Goleta Cemetery. Rick, who lives there, opened the program with a short introduction to the history of the cemetery and this was followed by SBCGS members and actors who’d researched the backgrounds of six chosen “residents.” They’d put together scripts and costumes and acted out the life stories of the people. “Hello, I was born in 1850…”

The library’s unusual name comes from the structure’s original use. Constructed in 1949, the one-story, red-tiled building was once the scientific laboratory of Dr. Melville Sahyun, a fellow born in Beirut, but who moved to Santa Barbara in 1923. A biochemist and medical pioneer, Dr. Sahyun’s focus was primarily prescription drugs and he churned out many discoveries, the most oft-mentioned of which was the invention of the anti-inflammatory molecule tetrahydrozoline, which became Visine. Dr. Sahyun’s family donated his laboratory, along with the accessory buildings on the one-and-a-half-acre property, to the SBCGS in 1998. The above-mentioned Victorian house had been the home of Dr. and Mrs. Sahyun.

Before leaving the laboratory-turned-library, I chatted around a bit with a few of the other volunteers, sharing details from my own family’s history that I thought might make tracing some of them difficult. No one was fazed, however, nor encouraged discouragement. For, as it turns out, and I learned there that day… if someone existed, there’s a path reaching back to them, no matter the situations or circumstances.

The volunteers all said, with a smile, the same thing: “We’ll find them.”  

The Sahyun Library’s location is 316 Castillo Street. Its current open times are Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am until 4 pm. There are also virtual meetings, workshops, and “Lunch and Learn” events open to the public, and free. Registration for these events is required and available on the website: www.SBGen.org.


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