Family history: two words to make some of us run for the hills (for a few individuals, perhaps quite literally!).

Families are the most intimate of communities in our lives, and the very familiarity of these complex units and their stories can breed indifference, especially when one is young.

Yet even in the not-so-young, there can be a perception that family history as a genre is not as interesting, and perhaps not as valuable, as other histories (national, economic, cultural). There is, certainly, the matter of appeal: why would I be interested in another person’s family saga and family tree? There is also, of course, the question of bias, however unintended: how reliable is the information provided – what, for example, is not said for the sake of family pride?

Philip Quirk: The Martin children waiting for the school bus, Tarlee, Mullaley, New South Wales, 1990

Quirk, Philip. The Martin children waiting for the school bus, Tarlee, Mullaley, New South Wales, 1990

Despite all this, there is increased recognition that these histories are often not only extraordinarily interesting, but also of real and enduring value to an understanding of our collective past, present and future.

As the wonderful historian Graeme Davison writes in the introduction to his own family history (one he admits avoiding for many years):

‘In the end… I succumbed… not only because I wanted to better understand who I am, but also in order to think more concretely about the relationship between the familial and the communal pasts. And ‘doing’ my own family’s history, or a part of it at any rate, seemed the best way to tackle it’.

The Library’s collection of Australian family histories is as diverse as the Australian family. From celebrated authors to relative unknowns, and from the professionally-published to the home-designed and spiral-bound, we have, and continue to collect, family histories of all kinds.

Bruce Postle: Ten children from the Steenhuis family playing cricket in a field in Bungaree, Victoria, January 1985

Postle, Bruce. Ten children from the Steenhuis family playing cricket in a field in Bungaree, Victoria, January 1985.

So, if you are interested in family histories already produced, or if you have written your own and would like to deposit it with the National Library, here are five frequently-asked questions (and answers!) to help you on your way during National Family History Month.

1) How do I find out if my family is mentioned in a family history?

One of the best resources available is Australian Family Histories: A bibliography and index, originally compiled by Ralph Reid and now available, thanks to Family Connections, as a freely searchable online index. You can search for a surname, and find the family history book (or books, if you’re lucky) in which the surname is mentioned. There is a handy link to Trove, too, so you can then search for holding libraries. Which leads to the next question…

2) I see the Library holds a family history I am interested in viewing. How can I access the Library’s collection of family histories?

If you intend to visit the Library, you can sign up for a Library card (it’s free, and you can do this online before you arrive), and order material to be delivered to our Reading Rooms. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to arrange an interlibrary loan through your local public or institutional library, and have an item sent there for you to use (talk to your local library staff about organising this). You can also make use of our Copies Direct service. There’s lots of information on the ‘Using the Library’ section of our website about how to access our material.

3) Why would I deposit my family history with the National Library?

Why wouldn’t you?! First, your family history will be preserved in perpetuity. Second, by depositing your family history with the National Library, you will make your family history (thanks to the discoverability of our catalogue and Trove) available to people throughout Australia and the world.

4) But my family history seems quite humble. Would the National Library even be interested?


5) OK then, you’ve convinced me. So how do I deposit my family history? (And do I need an ISBN)?

Simple: visit our Legal deposit page for all the information on how you can deposit your family history with the National Library. There are contact details on the page if you have further queries and concerns. (And no: you do not need an ISBN. They are useful for the international book trade and library sector, but are not mandatory and, for self-published family histories, generally unnecessary).

Display of published family histories in the Main Reading Room

Published family histories on display in the Main Reading Room.

Finally, if you are in the Library during August, please do pop in and have a look at the display I’ve curated of some of my favourite family histories in our collection. Happy National Family History Month!