Propagating your family tree
Every family seems to have one ̶ the ‘family botanist’. Botanist of the family tree, that is. Often prone to collecting, this relative is a keen family historian and protector of all the family’s historical records and documents. Arranging family reunions at ancestral places of interest are their specialty. You may be lucky enough to view the documentation if you are able to make it along to the next family gathering that requires at least a couple of airport destinations followed by a bus transfer or two. Asking the ‘family botanist’ for a copy of the research in lieu of attending the family gathering, may result in a list of reasons as to why it is not possible, along with a reminder of the number of hours the botanist has spent pulling all the information together. Perhaps this is unfair, the family tree botanist is a necessary and much valued resource however maybe it’s time to propagate your own family sapling. Or maybe your family is in need of someone that wants to take the reins on all things ancestral.
Here are some tips on how to get started:
1. Gather everything you have together (and then copy it)
Start by booking in coffee catch ups or telephone calls with relatives that you know will be able to share some family names and history with you. If you are fortunate enough to have your parents available to you, start with them and then branch out to other relatives. Take along either a copy of the family tree you already have, or kick off a fresh one. Here’s a family tree template from the Genealogical Society of Victoria that you could print out and use as a guide.
Once you have as much information as you want to gather by this means, take a deep breath, pick up the phone and give your family’s ‘ancestral botanist’ a call. See what information they are willing to share. Ask if you can arrange a copy of what they have (at your own cost given the time the person has dedicated to research to date). There’s no point in doubling up on hard work that has already been done. Chances are they will be flattered that you’ve taken an interest in what they’ve researched. And don’t forget the power of negotiation, you may have information they don’t have and vice versa – work in partnership and you may unlock more than you realised possible.
If you do arrange to photocopy and/or scan any ancestral archives, make sure that you photocopy onto acid-free paper and back it up on a USB for safe-keeping.
As you collect information, store all hardcopies in an acid-free box ̶ and get into the practice of keeping duplicates of everything. We’ll talk more about storage later.
2. Start researching based on what you already have
This is where the fun really starts. Now that you have some foundational information, it’s time to dig deeper.
Firstly, fill in any blanks on dates, contact the relevant state’s Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. The Victorian registry has an online search function available for births, deaths and marriages recorded in Victoria enabling you to get an uncertified image of the original register record.
Now you’ve got a wealth of information to base deeper research on. Here is a list of valuable family history research resources that you can explore further to build your family’s story:
- The Genealogical Society for the relevant state or local area. Victoria’s Genealogical Society provides some great pointers on getting started.
- Local, State and National Libraries – in Australia, the electoral rolls are held in the National and State Libraries and can provide a valuable source of information for names and places of residence.
- Local, State and National Historical Societies
- National Archives – in Australia, the National Archives of Australia enables you to search for online digital copies of archives, as well as order them for your own records. This is a really rich source of research for Australian family historians.
- For Australian history, National Library of Australia’s Trove website is a massive repository of Australian material from music to audio archives to photographs, diaries and letters. There is no cost to use this treasure Trove.
- For Australian history, the National Library of Australia provides a list of Australian websites related to family history and genealogy as well as helpful links to other informative sites, including overseas resources.
- For those with an Australian military background, the Australian War Memorial website has online family research available.
- For a broader, global search of archival documents related to family history, Ancestry.com is a popular, user pays research tool. This is one of many, but more popular, online genealogy tools available to help you research your family history.
3. Protect your research for the benefit of generations to come
With such a wealth of digital archives available via the internet, it may be possible to research a lot of your ancestral history without leaving home or even speaking to anyone. Whether you choose the route of speaking with as many relatives as possible, or spend many late nights researching online, or both, you want to make sure that the information you find is available for many generations to come.
Here are some tips on storing your family archives:
- For hardcopies of archives it is best to store in a central part of your home, where the temperature, light and humidity are all mild.
- 40-45% humidity is the level that curators of books and paper aim to achieve.
- Remove appendages that may corrode such as paper clips or staples.
- Use acid-free storage boxes to store your archives to protect them from light, dust and humidity.
- If you’re confident to do so, it is best to ask viewers of documents to use cotton gloves when handling them – the oil and perspiration from our hands can damage archives.
- Invest in buying acid-free paper for the purpose of separating archival documents from each other and photocopying or scanning original documents onto.
- If you can afford to, it is ideal to back up all scanned original documents to a USB, external hard drive or cloud storage (for example Dropbox, or Google Docs) so that if hardcopies are damaged, there is always an opportunity to retrieve electronic records. Storing documents via cloud storage also enables you to share valuable ancestral archives with the rest of your family.
Importantly have fun researching where you came from. You’ll soon discover why your family’s historian is so passionate about their research. You never know what family secrets or treasures you might dig up!