The culture of family history research
A summer scholar shares the experience of her research
28 July 2014
As a 2014 Seymour Summer Scholar, I worked on a project about the culture of family history research in Australia. The National Library of Australia is an important site for my study because its collections are used increasingly in the pursuit of family stories, but also as the location where much of the culture of family history research happens on a social level. Conversing with Library staff that work with family historians about their experience of this cultural phenomenon, particularly its recent growth, helped me to narrow my focus to an Australian context; to gain a longitudinal view into the developments of family history research over time; and to witness the educational role libraries and archives play in genealogical research.
Elizabeth Walker (1800—1876) The emigrants [185-] lithograph, nla.pic-an8926588
I had the opportunity to visit departments and reading rooms – such as Newspapers, Maps, Pictures and Manuscripts, Oral History, and Trove – to learn about how family historians are using the Library’s collections, and their unique interests and requirements as users. I met with staff from the National Film and Sound Archives, the Australian War Memorial, and The Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra to discuss their role in family history research. Between visits, I consulted the Library’s collections, including looking at hand-written family trees and albums in the manuscripts collections. In addition, I read about the personal challenges and motivations of family historians by surveying the library’s diverse collection of small-run, self-published family histories. I spent time analysing user data and feedback to learn more about the experience of genealogical researchers accessing the Library’s collections and Trove. Undertaking this research offered me insight into the relationship between libraries and family historians, as well as some of the preferences and practices of Australian genealogists.
One of things I was most interested to learn at the National Library is just how important stories – and particularly details about the texture of our ancestors’ day-to-day lives – are to family history researchers. Reference Librarian, Sue Morris, from the Newspapers Reading Room explained to me that many family historians want to collect and share stories and characters from their family’s past, rather than just recording names and dates. The evidence at the Library suggests that while family history may start with these details, it often branches out into local and social history. For instance, genealogists using the digitised newspapers on Trove consistently commented that they value the resource because it provides this narrative, contextual quality. Similarly at the Australian War Memorial, the reference team reported that people begin with personal service records, but then want to know what soldiers would have eaten, what they slept on, what the weather and plant-life were like at their stations. I hope to build on this knowledge in the next phase of my research, which will involve interviewing family historians.