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Life as a family history librarian

Life as a family history librarian
Meet the National Library's ultimate 'genies'
12 August 2016

If you’re like me and have an interest (and/or obsession) with family history, chances are you have dreamt of losing yourself in the endless stacks of the National Library. Shipping records, newspapers, books, manuscripts, pictures… who knows what family secrets are waiting to be discovered. 

For a lucky team of librarians, hunting for elusive ancestors is all in a day’s work. I visited my colleagues in our Newspapers and Family History team to find out just what being a family history librarian involves.

8am: A new day

Ralph sitting at the information desk in the Newspapers and Family History zone

Ralph at the information desk in the Newspapers and Family History zone

First stop is a visit with Ralph, the Coordinator of the Newspapers and Family History team. At the beginning of each day, before the Library doors are open to the public, Ralph assesses each new family history enquiry we’ve received through our Ask a Librarian service and allocates them to his team members.  

The questions vary every day, and can range from simple requests for death notices to wanting to locate and contact relatives who emigrated to Australia from the UK decades ago, to identifying emigration passes for descendants of Indian workers who were contracted as labourers on sugar cane plantations in Fiji. The variety of requests for assistance and sometimes the challenges they offer make the job a pleasure.

9am: The stacks

Microfilm drawers in the Library's stack areas

The Library's microform stack

Also at work before the Library’s Reading Rooms open at 10am is team member Leisa, who is collecting newspapers and microfilms that were requested overnight for use in the Library. So far she has retrieved the microfilmed manuscripts of Daisy Bates, the muster lists of a British Army regiment that served in colonial New South Wales, copies of an early Australian periodical and the papers of a clergyman who was a missionary in the South Pacific.

I soon realise that working in the Newspapers and Family History team is not all treasure hunts and fantastic discoveries, a significant part of the job is making sure you and I can access and navigate the massive microform collection.

10am: Opening the reading room

Ralph and Shannon behind the information desk in the Newspapers and Family History zone

Ralph and Shannon behind the information desk in the Newspapers and Family History zone

Our new Newspapers and Family History zone opened in May 2015. It is a light, modern and tranquil environment—occasionally punctuated by the whirring of microfilm readers or the excited exclamations of researchers.

The new area welcomes its first visitors when the Main Reading Room opens at 10am. At our information desk Shannon and Ralph are ready to assist visitors with advice on their family history searches.

As I walk around I also find team member Tessa greeting members of the public who have signed up to attend one of our learning sessions. Today, three library users will spend an hour with Tessa to learn how to use our microform readers and navigate our resources.

Reading the Sydney Morning Herald using a microfilm reader

Reading the Sydney Morning Herald using a microform reader

1pm: Helping people across Australia

Back downstairs in the staff area, Colleen is working on the Ask a Librarian questions allocated to her by Ralph. Each month, the team answers about 100 questions from people all over the world about family history and our unique collections. Today, Colleen is working on an enquiry from a genealogist (or ‘genie’!) whose family members lived in the Sydney area:

I was able to find information from the 2008 electoral rolls, the latest year we hold. I also located some useful immigration and naturalisation records for one of the family members from the National Archives of Australia webpage, and will let the client know that they can request copies of the records directly from the National Archives.

The team spend up to one hour on each question. If they can’t find the answer in that time, they will suggest other resources or research avenues for you to try.

3pm: Interlibrary loans and copying

Tessa at the AJCP cabinets in the stacks

Tessa at the AJCP cabinets in the stacks

Of course, for most people in Australia it is difficult to make it to the Library in Canberra, so we have ways of bringing the Library to you. Through our Copies Direct service you can order copies of certain collection items (subject to the Australian Copyright Act 1968) and have them sent to you by mail or email. We also send out items from our collection on interlibrary loans to other libraries, so you can access the material at the library in your hometown.

I head down to the microform stacks, where I again find Tessa. This time she is retrieving microfilm reels to send on interlibrary loan:

We receive around 100 interlibrary loan requests per month, which certainly keeps us busy! Many of these requests are for Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) microform reels, which I am retrieving now. The AJCP consists of 10,095 reels, and are only held at a handful of libraries across Australia, meaning our interlibrary loans are incredibly important to researchers. Because the AJCP reels are in such high demand, we can only allow the libraries to borrow them for five weeks, rather than the usual ten! We have to be careful that our microfilm don’t develop vinegar syndrome, where the old cellulose acetate film becomes brittle and gives off an acetic acid smell. Microfilming is now done on polyester film which thankfully doesn’t deteriorate in this way.

4pm: The end of another day

As the day starts to wind up, I return to the Newspapers and Family History zone. Shannon is back on shift at the information desk and is helping a visitor how to find the ship on which her great great grandmother sailed to Australia. He may be busy for a while!

The work of this team is extremely valuable, every day they help people from all over Australia connect with their past, and still find time to create free resources to help all family historians navigate the labyrinth of genealogical resources.

Reading area in the Newspapers and Family History zone

Reading area in the Newspapers and Family History zone

Family history resources

Did you know you can access a range of our family history resources from home? Our research guides cover a range of family history topics, and will point you in the right direction when you get stuck.

You can also use your Library card to login to our eResources and access some electronic material from home. You can apply for a Library card online (please note that not all eResources can be accessed from home).

Not sure where to start your research? Stuck somewhere along the way? Ask a Librarian.

Working at the Library

Keen to learn more about working at the National Library? Check out our opportunities to volunteer, apply for an internship or keep abreast of current vacancies and the Library's Indigenous employment program.

I notice that the AJCP reels are very popular, and yet they have been removed from open access! As much AJCP research involves cross-referencing between correspondence registers, in and out correspondence etc, which are all on different reels, it would be great if the reels could again be placed on open access. Thank you.
Thank for posting this. I live in Tasmania and have recently acquired my national library card. Can't wait to have a look see at what I can do from home. Wish I had become a research librarian, looks like you all have a great day while learning yourselves. Thank you again
I will have to visit the Family History reading room when visit Canberra later on this year. I (like Danielle) am obsessed with Family History, I have few brick walls I need to knock down. I am also chasing an elusive ancestor of my husbands. Trove offered up an tantalising piece of information - this ancestor fought at the Battle of Waterloo (possibly)
Many thanks for your great team. Found out so much about the family.
I currently volunteer 2 hours every Friday morning (except last one of the month) at North Sydney library helping people do their family history. I am fluent in French and have 17 years experience in family history (particularly French family history). I am moving to Casey (ACT) in late October to early November and would like to volunteer in the family history area. I am highly computer literate and have extensive experience in using Ancestry and Find My Past. My email is leehill@tpg.com.au
Hi Warren! You can apply to volunteer online - https://www.nla.gov.au/content/become-a-volunteer

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