The Culture of Family History Research

A summer scholar shares the experience of her research

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.

 

Comments

Comment: 
I am currently writing a historical romance novel on the lives of my Greatgrandparents, using, and including research on my actual family history around the 1900's and in particular, life in Adelaide and the Gold Mines of Kalgoorlie. I have read quite a few books but need to find more information on the actual living conditions, travel by train and sea, particularly for women in the goldfields, with babies and young children. Is there a particular area online that I could be directed to for the information I need. Regards, Angela Kelly
Comment: 
Hi Angela, This was around the time women obtained the right to vote and stand for Parliament. You may wish to consider this in your novel. Have you read "A Fortunate Life" by A. B. Facey? A wonderful Australian classic. This is a biography but may help to inform your writing. Best wishes. Liz
Comment: 
Hi Angela, The simplest place to begin online research about living and travel conditions in the Goldfields and Adelaide around the 1900s is through reading through the following newspaper titles available via Trove • Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 - 1950) • Kalgoorlie Western Argus (WA : 1896 - 1916) • Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 - 1931) http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper Other useful sources of online information include • The Outback Family History website http://www.outbackfamilyhistory.com.au/ • The State Library of Western Australia's Family History Handbook - Dead Reckoning http://www.slwa.wa.gov.au/dead_reckoning • Guides to Western Australian History research http://slwa.wa.gov.au/find/guides/wa_history • The State Library of South Australia's SA memory pages http://www.samemory.sa.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=61 You may also wish to consider the following New South Wales Resources that provide an insight into life in the NSW Goldfields. http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/109917/life-on-the-goldfields-living-there.pdf http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/109324/children-on-the-goldfields.pdf http://www.resourcesandenergy.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/109898/life-on-the-goldfields-getting-there.pdf We also suggest that you contact relevant Historical Societies who may be able to provide you with insights that are not online or may be unpublished. The Eastern Goldfields Historical Society covers Kalgoorlie and there are a number of Societies in Adelaide Eastern Goldfields Historical Society http://www.kalgoorliehistory.org.au/index.html Adelaide Historical Societies http://users.sa.chariot.net.au/~littoral/lgamap/h-lgasoc/hls-1m.htm Best wishes!
Comment: 
I started researching my father's history some 15 years ago, in fits and starts, and like Ashley Barnwell found myself getting not exactly distracted but going off on tangents. I would be reading on book vaguely on topic and find some information which would send me back to my research by answering a question. My topic is my father's war service in WWII as part of the Czech Army in England and later France. I read Madeline Albrights "Prague Winter" and in one part where she was writing about the Czech government in exile in London, realised one of the names listed was listed on some papers of my father's. Then I found some letters from a Czech in exile in America who turned out to be a former mayor of Prague and a historical figure in his own right. It has been a fascinating journey, which hasn't ended yet, but in the process I too have found libraries, museums and archives fascinating. As a lawyer who trained later in life, I have found my legal training of drafting chronologies for cases a great asset in collating information and seeing patterns. It is a fun project, just need more discipline in writing the actual history. Lydia Kinda
Comment: 
I am sympathetic with these thoughts. My challenge in researching the historical context of my ancestral heritage is to be very disciplined as every new discovery generates more and more interesting leads, and it get worse the further I go back in time. I am not, at this point, writing a novel, but want to create easily accesible 'stories' about my ancestors for my descendents who I expect will often NOT be that interested in a detailed report of names and dates. So I need to have clear and limited objectives. For example, focusing on one branch of the family for a finite number of generations.
Comment: 
I agree with the sentiment expressed that many family historians like to move beyond the bare bones of 'who begot whom, when and where' to provide the social and economic context of the lives of the family members. This greatly assists the readers to understand possible motivations for some of the extraordinary decisions our forebears have made and assists in giving some insight into aspects of their personal character. The challenge of finding and using records from other countries and in other languages adds spice to the detective work.
Comment: 
Trove is just brilliant for family history research, especially the older stuff. Because newspapers were the main source of information - no tv or internet - everything was detailed in them. Privacy laws were less rigid & so the newspapers had a lot of personal information that you just can't find on people in the current day. I really appreciate NLA's work on Trove - we always do our bit to correct the digital versions of the papers - and I love that we can, it's a fantastic resource & really well managed.
Comment: 
one of the big immigrant stories that is just coming to light is that of over 4000 Irish orphan girls who willingly emigrated from Ireland during the Famine years of 1848-1850. We are slowly bringing their stories to the public awareness, sharing them with follow descendants and with people back in Ireland. Genealogists are adding to the government documents and we encourage all to look at www.irishfaminememorial.org help continue the wonderful work commenced in the 1980s by Dr Trevor McClaughlin, published in his two volumes, Barefoot & Pregnant?: Irish Famine Orphans in Australia (1991 & 2001). Dr Perry McIntyre, historian, Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee

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