A is for Ancestors and Archives

AWelcome to my A to Z journey through family history. If you’ve ever been curious about your own family’s story perhaps this will tempt you to get started – or frighten you off entirely.


The starting point about doing family history is to learn who our ancestors were, their names and where they came from.

Quite often oral family history breaks down over only a few generations so that some people may not know the names of grandparents who perhaps died young, and few will know the names of their great-grandparents.

Many of us start out wanting to know more about these shadowy figures from whom we descend. As many of us descend from immigrant families, we are often curious about the countries of origin for our immigrant ancestors.

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Be sure you’re searching in the right tree. Image from shutterstock.com

Contrary to a popular advertisement, you do need to have some sense of what you’re looking for, otherwise you might well have your ancestral ladder propped up against the wrong tree.Traditional genealogy trains us to follow backwards in a line from ourselves to our parents, their parents and their parents in turn, confirming each linkage based on the evidence we discover rather than simply plucking suggested leaves from others’ trees or program suggestions.

Building a genealogy is like building the foundations of a house – get it right and you’ll wind up with a solid ancestral line. However, there’s more to each of us than simply our dates of birth, marriage and death. There are innumerable sources we can investigate to explore the lives of our families: where they lived, what were their social circumstances, how did they earn their daily bread etc. This is what we refer to as putting “flesh on the bones” of your ancestry. I call it exploring your family history.


Genie magic carpet shutterstock_63777541

image from shutterstock.com

These oft-neglected gems are an Aladdin’s cave of riches for family historians. Having moved beyond the basic biographical data, this is where you’re most likely to find all sorts of delights to reveal more of your ancestor’s lives. Don’t let anyone tell you this is all online already – I can’t imagine that ever happening despite the exponential growth of online records in recent years.Nor will a genie appear offering you an instant solution to your search.


Archives can be challenging, mysterious and downright frustrating, but like a lot of our research, there’s nothing like adding some more shading to the family stories. Fortunately they are now more responsive to family historians and often have guides, flow charts and other handy tools as well as the google of archives –  the archivists themselves.

Come along on the journey with me for the next month as we explore how we track down our ancestors and their stories. Feel free to ask questions as we go along, either in general or in relation to a specific topic.

If you’re interested in taking on this ancestral journey it comes with two warnings:

  1. You never know what you’ll discover so be prepared to be tolerant of what you discover
  2. This hobby obsession is addictive – many of us start on the journey little realising that years later we’ll still be sleuthing away looking to solve one more mystery or find one more detail.

Beyond the Internet: Week 27 Archives – the tough stuff

Beyond the Internet

This is Week 27 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is Archives – the serious bit. This is the first topic in the archives section of this series. Please do join in and write comments or posts on your experiences with archives.

Over the course of the past 26 weeks I’ve often mentioned archives as sources to follow up your research but what are they really? Google took me to The Society of American of Archivists (TSAA) site which provides a wider definition than some of the standard dictionary descriptions:

n. ~ 1. Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records. – 2. The division within an organization responsible for maintaining the organization’s records of enduring value. – 3. An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations; a collecting archives. – 4. The professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations. – 5. The building (or portion thereof) housing archival collections. – 6. A published collection of scholarly papers, especially as a periodical.

The why of archives

The most critical aspect to remember when looking at archival documents is that they were not created for our benefit as family historians. Documents are created and maintained to preserve the original purpose of the creating organisation, though over time their secondary benefit may become a further reason for archiving them. As often as not they are motivated by some form of financial or legal purpose: money speaks down the ages.

I find it helps to think about the sorts of documents we interact with in our day-to-day life in the 20th and 21st centuries. What agencies do you interface with? What paperwork do you have to complete in the course of your life? A similar reflection will help you think of where you might find paperwork on your ancestral families. It’s then a case of searching for which agency might have been responsible for that particular section of bureaucracy eg a local council for rates, state or federal government records for prisoners, bankruptcy, petty sessions, death duties etc.

I suspect, too, that most of us automatically think of government archives when we think of sources of these documents. But what of church/diocesan archives; university, school or college archives; business archives or local history archives? This link to the Australian Society of Archivist’s Directory of (Australian) Archivesis a very useful, and rather amazing guide to just how much is available.

The Queensland State Archives at Runcorn is my favourite: a gold-mine of information for my Qld ancestors.

Collections or archives?

And then what of collections of oral histories or collections of iconic items from our physical heritage?  These collections may be presented in exhibitions rather than archived as a collective whole but can equally provide us with insights into our family  history. In the coming days I’ll be writing about one such collection currently on display in Melbourne. Similarly the Irish In Australia aka Not Just Ned exhibition in Melbourne last year provided a collective insight into the Irish experience in Australia and evoked many memories of first-hand experiences as well as historical insights.

How about collections of photographs like those hosted by Picture Australia now incorporated in Trove, or by many local government sites or state libraries?  What of the newspaper collection on Trove? Surely this could be said to be a digital archive in its own right now? What of the wonderful online map collections for Scotland at the National Library of Scotland?

I don’t profess to be an archivist and have merely a user’s perspective so perhaps these views run counter to those held by a professional, in which case I’d be more than happy to hear a more expert view.


How do you access archival collections?

The catalogue for each archive in your area of interest has to become your friend, no matter how challenging it might be to learn. You may need to experiment to try what search gives you the most relevant results. Catalogues hold the key to an enormous array of documents which may release secrets in your ancestry. Remember searching only by personal name may not provide you with any clues, after all these documents weren’t created with your research in mind. Do search by creating organisation, by place or topic.

Archive boxes stacked -image from Wikipedia.

Also make sure you look to see if the archive has prepared online guides for the benefit of researchers. This is becoming more and more common and where they exist can be invaluable to your understanding of the documents.  Similarly indexes, both online and onsite, may provide the easy-access pathway to a family name.

You should also check that the documents you want to see are not stored off-site and require a day or two’s notice to view.

And despite what programs like Who Do You Think You Are? sometimes suggest, you will not be able to browse the behind the scenes shelves and compactus.  All you will see is the box or document you’ve ordered, or perhaps even just a microfilm.

The practicalities

Don’t forget that before visiting you need to know how to get there; the opening hours; access to food/coffee/tea etc; policies of laptops, cameras and scanners; and check you have whatever paperwork is required to get your reader’s ticket,.

Do be forgiving of yourself when you first start archival research and allow for time to get to know that particular archive. I usually expect that my first day in a strange archive is likely to be less productive as I gain an on-the-ground understanding of how that one works.  They can be difficult organisations to get your head around in the first instance but increasingly the staff have a client focus which makes your life easier – they will point you in the right direction but please don’t expect they can/will do your research for you. Nor should you expect they’re interested in the minutiae of your family history except as it pertains to the questions you’re posing.  Remember the old adage “God helps those who help themselves”.

The bonus

Once you make a few discoveries you will be amazed just how much richer this adventure makes your family history and completely hook you into how much remains undiscovered beyond the internet.