Are genealogy forums worthwhile?

There are advantages and disadvantages to leaving your name, surnames-of-interest, and email address on the many genealogy forums and load-your-family-tree websites.

Advantages

The main advantage is, of course, that you might connect with someone who can give you vital information. That is the reason we sign up to these things in the first place. And don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a response straight away. The crucial person who has the family bible, or knows who has it, may not read your post for years.

My g-g-g-grandfather, Richard Eason, immigrated to New South Wales from what is now Northern Ireland in 1850, and a few years later his older sister Anne, arrived with her family and their mother, Sarah. We don’t know much about them and we don’t have any photos of that generation or the one after. I posted my interest in the surname Eason on an Irish forum – it was so long ago now that I can’t remember which one it was (if I ever change my primary email address I will lose these forums). Anyway, only last year a lovely lady in South Australia contacted me about my Eason post. Her husband was descended from Anne, the older sister and she was able to send me photos of the family, including the mother Sarah, and a scan of the inside page of the prayer book where Sarah had written the date of her wedding and the births of her children. Priceless!

Another advantage, more to do with loading your family tree on a website such as Ancestry or GenesReunited, is the insight you can get by formatting your family tree in this way. You can easily see inconsistencies, missing information such as certificates you haven’t yet ordered, and problems you thought had been sorted out already, that you may not have seen looking at the data within your genealogy program all the time. You can see that you have different spellings for the Ewins and missing sources for marriages. You can see how much of your data really came from that report you were sent five years ago and haven’t got around to verifying for yourself. Of course, these issues also emerge if we just run a report to give to someone else.

Disadvantages

Many other people may contact you as well, people who are very unlikely to be connected to you in any way. I still get the occasional email from people who have seen my post on one of these forums and have asked me if I know their g-g-g-grandfather who came from Ireland, or Scotland. They don’t seem to notice that my email address is Australian, and they rarely seem to have much information themselves. A g-g-g-g-grandfather of mine is William Stewart, who raised his family in Paisley, Scotland until the boys emigrated to Australia in the 1850s. William Stewart is a very common name in Scotland and so the other information I provide is important – Paisley and Australia and all the rest, and yet I get emails from Americans about Stewarts from all parts of Scotland who emigrated to the USA. Bewildering, it is.

This annoyance pales into insignificance beside the main disadvantage of posting your email address on forums, and that is its susceptibility to spammers. These people gather email addresses from wherever they can, and they indiscriminately send out their pleas for assistance in getting fictitious money out of some troubled country and advertisements for pirated software and enhancements to bodily parts. They also sell email addresses on to others who use them for the same evil ends. The more places you have your email address accessible on the web, the more your inbox is likely to be bothered by these people.

Personally, I find the benefits of potential contacts far outweight the risk of more spam. Spam will find you even if you don’t put your email address on a forum, and there are many good anti-spam tools available. Most internet service providors have their own anti-spam software that stops these messages getting to your inbox in the first place. I must admit, though, that I think my spam is decreasing. The percentage that my ISP reports is spam is much lower than it used to be, and not so many slip through their net.

 I’m sure there are other advantages and disadvantages that you can think of, and I’d love to hear what they are. Leave a comment!

Newspapers for family history research

Sydney Gazette nla.news-issn18336310-s1-gOne of the best ways to fill in some detail of the lives of our ancestors is to find a mention of them in a newspaper, or, better still, a whole article or obituary. In small country towns such as those in which many of my ancestors lived the death of a prominent local citizen was a newsworthy event for small local newspapers. No-so-prominent citizens may have been included in birth, death and marriage announcements, gossip columns, and legal notices such as for the granting of probate. Even if we can’t find our ancestor or other relatives by name, we can still get a very good idea of what their lives were like.

Current newspapers

For current newspapers try the Guide to Australian Newspapers which has a town search in the top right corner. Entering “Blayney” gave a list of three newspapers that all include Blayney in their coverage, with links to the individual newspapers. Even if your family no longer lives in the area these newspapers can give you an idea of what life is like for the locals and how it may be different from yours. For example, the website of the Blayney Guide has news from the Blayney Chronicle and a link to Sydney for Kids. It is easy to forget that for kids that grow up in the country a trip to Sydney is a big deal, as it was for me when I was growing up in Dubbo. A newspaper story discusses locks being put on another of Blayney Shire Council’s bores to stop people from stealing the water, and another gives the finding that residents of western NSW are more likely “to be overweight, binge drink, and smoke” than in the rest of the State (Blayney Chronicle, 31st May 2007, 11:10am).

Old newspapers

For historical newspapers that may no longer be published you can search in the catalogue of the State Library of NSW (or the National Library of Australia or your State library in other states). The National Plan for Australian Newspapers is a joint project between the National and State Libraries to locate, collect and preserve every newspaper published in Australia. Searching in the catalogue of the SLNSW shows me what is actually immediately available to me (with a delay of 20-30 mins) in the library itself. A keyword search for Periodicals Only for “Blayney” gives a list of 18 results which are either newspapers or council reports and publications. The dates for available issues are given and whether they have been microfilmed or kept in offsite storage. Once you have found the paper and the date that you want you request the microfilm at the Library, wait a short while for it to be retrieved, stick it on one of the microfilm readers with the larger screen, find the page you want, and print it off. Couldn’t be simpler.

Australian Periodical Publications 1840-1845 is an Australian Co-operative Digitisation Project that has digitised and made available online periodicals that began publication in 1840-1845 relevant to Australia. They may have been published beyond these dates. Pages have been scanned and made available as multi-page PDF files. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) does not appear to have been used to enable indexing and searching of names and other words. The free software Adobe Reader is required to read them. Even if you can’t find mention of your ancestors’ names in these publications there is a wealth of more general material that can give you an idea of what life was like for them.

An example, chosen at random, is the first issue of the South Australian Colonist, which began publication in London in 1840, which gives a copy of the commission of, and detailed instructions to, the first Land and Emigration Commissioners to enable them to sell “waste Crown land” and use the proceeds to bring emigrants out of England to settle in the British Colonies; first-hand accounts of immigrants and settlers and instructions for new or prospective settlers; and a report of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, all in the first six pages! The last page contains advertisements for ships about to sail to Australia, land available for purchase, and other necessary equipment such as iron bedsteads that folded up and attached to the chest for travel (presumably it attached to one’s luggage, not to one’s person!).

Early Sydney newspapers

Of course, the early papers of New South Wales were begun before these dates. The first Australian newspaper was the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. The first issue has been digitised by the State Library of NSW and can be seen here. Further issues up to 1842 are available in Mitchell Library on microfilm. The Sydney Morning Herald, which followed after 1842, is available on microfilm at the State Reference Library of the State Library of NSW from the first issue in August 1842 up to three months ago, with more recent paper issues available on request.

A brief history of newspapers in Australia can be seen at the Australian Government’s Culture and Recreation Portal here, and another one, from the National Library of Australia, here.

Yellowed cuttings from newspapers are often found in scrapbooks or loose among the old photographs with no note of which paper they came from or on what date. It is very satisfying, to me anyway, to have a photocopy of the relevant page in a newspaper that shows the name and date of the newspaper as well as the small portion that was cut out in which my ancester was mentioned.

Further information, including available indexes, can be found in Cora Num’s excellent Websites for Genealogists.

Further reading

Vine Hall, N. Tracing Your Family in New South Wales, 5th Edition, Adelaide: Gould Genealogy, 2006.

As well as the chapter in this book on newspapers I suggest following the many links to websites inserted through the text.

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