Genealogy education

dreamstimefree_6456266_320x240No matter how long you’ve been tracing your family history there is always more work to do. Similarly, no matter how much you think you know about how to trace your family history, there is always more to learn. Things are changing all the time as new records and indexes become available, as the internet is used more, and as your research progresses and your interests change.

You may find that a family you are tracing came from Scotland and so you need to find out about Scottish research. Or the family moved to Queensland and you need to find out where to find Queensland death certificates and probate. Or you find that an ancestor became a farmer and you need to find out about land records. Or you can’t decipher some old handwriting, or understand the terms used in an old will.

So how do you learn more?

The obvious way is to buy books, and that is a topic for another time. I’d like to cover some other places to learn that you may not have thought of.

The Internet

It is amazing how much information there is available on the internet. I’m not talking here about doing a search for the name of your ancestor and finding that someone has done all the work and put it on the web; I’m talking about research guides to individual geographic areas or types of documents.

Many websites have guides to research in different geographical areas or subject areas:

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone.  What this means in practice is that if anyone puts something suspect in there someone else will come along and update or remove the offending material. There are many more specialised lists of terms around but Wikipedia is a good first option to look for the name of a place or the meaning of a legal or medical term. Where it gives sources it can be useful as a pointer to more specialised works.

The Encyclopedia of Genealogy works the same way as Wikipedia but is more specialised. It is run by Dick Eastman, the writer of a well-known genealogy blog. Material is being added every day.

Society of Australian Genealogists has some excellent research guides under their Helping You menu, written by highly experienced staff and volunteers.

State Records NSW have many indispensible guides to the records they hold available online. Archives in Brief are fact sheets about specific topics such as Convicts and Passenger Lists and can be downloaded and printed, or collected from the reading rooms.

GenUKI is the best place to find out what is available for UK research. Most counties are managed by a volunteer who keeps the site up to date. What is available and where, which parish is where, what is being indexed and whether it is available online.

Familysearch has a large number of research guides for many countries of the world and States of the USA under their main Research Guidance menu. Australia and New Zealand are not included.

Courses and lectures

I’ve talked about these before. Here is a brief list:

  • State Records NSW hold free seminars on a regular basis on the records available in their archives and how they can help you with your research.
  • The NSW and ACT Family History Societies Annual Conference will be held this year in Dubbo from 12-14th September 2008.
  • Many family history societies have their own annual fairs or conferences.

Internet forums

No matter what your area or preference, there is almost certainly a forum or a mailing list that can tell you more. You can read what other people ask and the answers they receive, and you can ask your own questions and get answers. Most people are very helpful and courteous in these forums.

Rootsweb host a great many mailing lists and message boards for family historians all over the world, including many regions and societies in Australia. Many genealogical societies host their own forums and restrict access to members, but most are open to everyone.


Podcasts are relatively new to the world of genealogy, and the world in general, but are a marvellous way of listening to lectures on many topics from all around the world.

A podcast is a sound or video recording that has been made available on the internet. The ABC, for example, makes many of its radio and television shows available at

You can download individual episodes or you can subscribe to a feed. A feed requires a podcast reader such as iTunes or Juice which you run on your computer. I use the one that came with my MP3 player, called Zencast. You can then listen to them at your leisure on your computer or download them to your MP3 player or mobile phone to listen to when you are out and about. I listen to podcasts on the train and at the gym.

The National Archives in England records many of its lectures on history and family history as podcasts. I must admit to these being my favourites, even the ones about Oliver Cromwell and Henry the Eighth, neither of whom I’m related to (as far as I know!).

Genealogical Society of Victoria has started recording lectures and making them available to their members on their website. This is a trend that I hope other societies will follow.

The ABC’s Radio National has a weekly program on social history called Hindsight which can give you a broader picture of a place or time or person in history.

There are many more, especially in the United States. So many that I think they should be the topic of a future post.

How do you write your family history?

I was amused recently by a discussion on a genealogy forum about whether we can use family tree software or a word processor to write our family history. A family tree program such as The Master Genealogist or Family Tree Maker or one of the many other excellent programs can keep track of our names and dates but it cannot be used to write reports or stories for our relatives and others.

Most family tree programs will write a report for us if we click the right button. The sentences may be a bit stilted but they get the facts across. I’m sure you’ve seen many examples; here’s one:

Mary SMITH was born to John Smith and Elizabeth Bennett on 03 April 1856 in Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1861 census in 45 Shuttle Street, Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1871 census in 21 Park Street, Glasgow, Scotland. She married John McDonald, the son of James McDonald and Jean Simpson, on 09 December 1878 in Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1881 census in Lewis Lane, Glasgow, Scotland. She immigrated on 26 July 1883 in Sydney, NSW, Australia. She died on 31 January 1903 in Penrith, NSW, Australia.

The children of Mary Smith were:

And so on and so on. It’s very uninspiring but it does get the facts across. Of course, it may be missing much of the story that you have stored elsewhere as notes.

There are alternatives. Some prefer to sit down and write the whole thing from scratch in a word processor such as Word. Depending on the skill of the writer it is likely to be a much more interesting read, and will probably contain much more of interest than just these bare facts, such as her nursing of local children, her other relatives on whose advice she moved to Australia, and the death of her eldest son on the voyage out here, and other such examples.

Many family tree programs allow the inclusion of this sort of information as well. The program that I am most familiar with is The Master Genealogist (TMG). It not only allows me to decide which facts will be included in a narrative, it allows me to determine how those facts will be reported. I can craft sentences to my own satisfaction and skill as a writer.

The discussion in the forum, as you can probably imagine, was about the ability of a family tree program to write narrative as well as you can yourself in a word processor. The answer, of course, is no. If the question is, can the program automatically generate prose that looks as though I wrote it myself from scratch, then of course the answer is no. You have to spend a great deal of time looking at the sentences it generates and changing them until they make sense, follow on smoothly from the sentence before, and do not appear as though they’ve been generated by a program. So who has written the prose in this case, you or the program? You have, of course.

TMG can do this, but it takes time, with a lot of trial and error. The most recent version of the program allows you to display a preview of the sentence when you are creating or updating a fact. You can update the sentence for that person only, or you can update a “master” that will use it everywhere that the same type of fact appears.

The only good reason that I can see for doing all of this work is if you are going to be generating multiple reports with at least some of the same people listed for different relatives. The same text will come out for each person no matter how often you run reports for different branches of your family. You may do some tweaking in your word processor once the report has been generated but you don’t have to write it from scratch every time.

If you are just going to do it once, as a professional genealogist might for a client, then it is not worth the extra work of setting up sentences in the family tree program, and you are better off doing it directly in the word processor.

Another advantage to using your family tree program is that it will probably generate a list of sources for you, and will cite them, if you wish, throughout the text. This is much less hassle than making sure you are quoting the right source with the right number every time you make a change, and keeping your superscripts correctly numbered.

That’s my two cents worth, and that was my take-away from the long discussion on the forum.


APG-L Archives at, February 2008.

How to start your family tree part 2 – civil registrations of births, deaths and marriages

Collecting evidence

Once you have talked to your parents and other relatives and found out as much as you can from them it’s time for the expensive part of the exercise. There is no getting away from it, you have to start paying for certificates.

What you are trying to do is find documentary evidence for what you have been told. Even your father’s date of birth is just hearsay until you see it in writing on an official document, and the same with the names of your grandparents’ parents. If you don’t do this you may find you are running blindly down the wrong track, and tracing someone elses’ family tree, and there is nothing more frustrating than when you finally discover that you’ve been doing this.

Civil Registration Indexes

We usually begin by collecting birth, death, and marriage certificates for our ancestors. These will usually lead us backwards to the previous generation. In New South Wales you can start with online indexes. The NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages has an excellent online index. The search for births and deaths is here:

and the search for marriages is here:

You can get from one to the other by clicking on the button on the right hand side of the screen.

NSW BDM indexes are more useful than those of England and Wales…. Civil registration began in 1856 in NSW, a year after it was introduced in Scotland. It was modelled on the Scottish system, and even though Scotland backed down and reduced the number of questions asked, New South Wales did not. Civil registrations contain a wealth of information…

The indexes, therefore, are also more helpful than those of England and some other Australian States. The given names of both parents are listed and searchable for births and deaths, so that not only can you see that the John Smith you’ve found is more likely to be yours because the parents names are correct, but you can search for other children born to the same parents and find all the siblings of your John Smith. The location of the registration is also very helpful, although it is not necessarily the location of the birth but rather the district where the birth was registered. You can therefore discount the John Smiths born in Sydney and other parts of the State if you know your Smiths lived in Wollongong.


NSW birth certificate

When you have found the entry in the index that you think is your ancestor you must order the certificate. This is the most expensive part of the exercise and I’m sorry, there is no avoiding it. The extra information that appears on the certificate that is not available on the index might be the only clue you have to the next part of the puzzle.

The NSW Registry currently charges $26 for a certificate, which is certified by the Registry and can be used as proof of ancestry. Usually the certificate contains the actual handwritten columns of information from the original register. An example is given on the right, with thanks to the NSW rEgistry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

The NSW Registry has accredited Transcription Agents to transcribe birth, death and marriage registrations which are much cheaper than the full certificates. You can order full transcripts or partial transcripts that only contain the details you want. You can see the list at

Before 1856

Before civil registration began in 1856 records of births, deaths and marriages were kept by the churches where the christenings, burials and marriages took place. Most of this information was collected by the Registry after civil registration was introduced and hand-written into large bound volumes. Most of these are included in the NSW Registry indexes, where they are called “Early Church Records”, but the information available on the actual certificate is less.

Baptisms show the dates of birth and baptism and parent’s names, sometimes including the mother’s maiden surname but not always. The occupation of the father and the abode is also recorded. Very early records, from 1787 to 1820 or so, have much less information even than this.

Marriages have the names, marital status and parish of both parties. If either was under age or a convict then the consent of parents or the Governor is recorded. Witnesses are recorded, and may include family members. Very early records may just list the marriage date, names of the parties and location.

Deaths show the name, dates of death and burial, age, and occupation. Children may be recorded as “the son of” or “the daughter of”. Parents names are otherwise never recorded, which makes them much less useful than later death registrations. Early records may show even less information than this.

Most of these records have been microfilmed and are available at some libraries and family history societies, where they can be examined and transcribed but not copied. It is important to realise that what you are seeing on the microfilm has been transcribed – it is very rarely the actual record which your ancestors signed (or made their mark). You will notice that all the handwriting is the same, and if you are lucky it will be easy to read. Not all handwriting is readily decipherable without practice.


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

New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Family History, website at, retrieved 25 Feb 2008.

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