2 December 2016

Family history: Who do you really think you are?

| Maryann Mussared
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And if you aren’t quite sure, how do you go about finding out? Once upon a time, most families had a distant great aunt or cousin who was described in hushed tones as ‘the family historian’. They were the keepers of all things dog-eared and dusty, including letters, photos inscribed on the back with shaky handwriting, and also guardians of closely held family secrets or even the odd skeletons.

Skeleton in the closet. Photo: iStock

I am often accused of being far more interested in dead people than I am of those around me. Where does my morbid preoccupation with the lives and loves of people dead for decades or even centuries come from – the history of my family. In the past few years, I have discovered it isn’t just me. I belong to a digital network of internet cousins, sort of like old-fashioned pen-pals , all equally absorbed in using the research tools now so readily available, and willing to share and exchange. So where did I start?

It was a long shared interest with both my grandfather and father, and we used to do everything on paper. This changed about 12 years ago. Large numbers of people became obsessed with the British series “Who Do You Think You Are?” which started in 2004, followed by the Australian version in 2008. Ancestry.com enjoyed an extraordinary increase in business and millions of enthusiasts now have digital trees with thousands of relatives recorded, and regularly chat on line with distant cousins all over the world. The best way to get started is wait for a 14-day free trial and just see if you like the whole business of examining your past and that of your ancestors.

Genealogy (I tend to avoid using this word as it conjures up visions of family crests and ancient family piles) or family history has become the new black, and has immense appeal to young and old alike. You can keep it simple, or you can go the whole hog and go to conferences, seminars, conference cruises. I decided to go digital and turn my piles of paper records into a very extensive digital tree I can share with cousins all over the world.

So have you ever wondered if it is as easy as the Ancestry ads on TV say? And is it expensive? Well, it can be both easy and hard, and it can be a bit expensive, or it can be virtually free! Researching family history isn’t just a hobby and it need not necessarily cost the proverbial ‘arm and leg’. In Canberra we are blessed not only with free and easy access to our wonderful national institutions, but also to free computers in the ACT Library system that are readily available if you make a booking. Ask your parents, phone your grandparents, speak to long-lost cousins, and even schedule in a chat with the oldest members of your family and talk to them about what they know or remember. You may strike gold and find a family historian. I did and was sent a copy of what seemed at the time a very large tree. I also learnt never to discount gossip, because there is usually a fragment of truth in it.


Written in 1968, this fragment of a letter between my grandfather and his cousin Gwyn shows that ‘blood is thicker than water’ and even though they had not seen each other since they were children, there still was a strong bond. They were born in the 1880s and were a wealth of family gossip!

You are now ready to take the next step and access a vast digital world that links us to people and places instantly. Millions of records can be accessed for free, once you know how. Researching our ancestors allows us to reflect on who we are and where we came from. I have developed immense respect for my grandparents and great grandparents and generations before that after learning what they did during the many conflicts of both the Empire and the two World Wars, and the risks they took to bring their young families across the oceans. I was pleasantly surprised when talking to younger members of the family that they regard it as a great intergenerational family activity; and it makes history relevant.


Marriage Certificate of my great-grandparents. Sometimes you need a little patience to read old-fashioned hand-writing!

So what is the great thing about living in Canberra, especially if you decide you want to research your family history? This is a city with all the resources you need at hand. The National Library and it is not just a repository of books. It has always been my favourite building in Canberra, and I am a regular user of the family history centre, the e-resources, the newspaper room and the wonderful and innovative Bookplate restaurant. This should be the first place to visit when you have made the decision to start your tree. And help is at hand!


The National Library’s recently refurbished Family History area, located off the Main Reading Room, is a delight to use. They runs regular sessions on getting started with researching family history and their website is easy to manoevre and even has a ‘how to get started’ video . You will also find the librarians in the area are very helpful.


Computers are readily available and there is free access to the library versions of Ancestry.com and the world-wide version of Find My Past. The Library also has an extensive collection of Australian newspapers on microfiche. An added bonus, if you have a reader card for the National Library, you can log into their extensive e-resources at home, and read 18th and 19th century newspapers, as well as London’s The Times.

There are other places in Canberra and online you can go to get started and get ongoing help.

You can join Canberra’s excellent local History and Genealogy Society, located at the Community Hub in Cook. There is a membership fee, but it is a good investment for people who are just beginning as everyone is so friendly and helpful. Once you join they have regular introductory sessions for new members with a tour of the extensive library and records. If you want to order microfiche from the Family Search section of Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS), they can be delivered and viewed here with great ease. There is an extra small charge. There is also a local Latter Day Saints family history centre at Lyneham and the Canberra Family History Centre which has limited opening hours but again, the volunteers who staff this centre are always patient and helpful.

ACT Libraries has a special section for researching ACT families and provides free access to the library version of Ancestry. An added bonus if you have an ACT Library card, you can even log into Find My Past at home.

The Australian War Memorial provides both online and a family history section at the Memorial so you can research members of our family who have served in conflicts

The National Archives of Australia has an incredibly rich collection of records but you can even just start with service records for those who served in WWI and WWII. These can be viewed online at home. It is possible to request a printed copy for special records and overseas researchers have been delighted with the presentation and quality of the copy.

With cloud filing now so accessible, it is easy to create digital archives and share photos of relatives, copies of original letters and images of family heirlooms. Creating a digital archive – sharing family memories. Ancestry effectively does this, but remember you do have to pay to be a member, although you can share access with family members. Now so many cloud filing systems provide a sizeable space for free like Dropbox.

For further research, don’t overlook what is available online. The are millions of records on many free access website. For Australian family history, the wonderful TROVE newspaper database is a wealth of information. There was a time when most births, deaths and marriages were published in the paper. To me, TROVE is the best thing since sliced bread. Sometimes I hesitate to do a search because I know I will disappear into a ‘worm-hole’ and spend hours in another decade reading not just what I searched for, but about the everyday reality of living in another time.

So what can you get out of taking an interest in your own personal history or ‘herstory’? I have taken great delight in seeing grandparents establish a strong rapport with children who have not understood the relevance of history and their own past. Even starting with something as straightforward as looking at war records and photos can get a child involved and teach them essential facts in history. How did it affect me personally? Well, the whole family history bug bit me extra hard and I am resisting taking the next step in what has turned into somewhat of an obsession. I am rather tempted by a family history cruise being offered by Unlock the Past next year, but in the meantime, I will return to my ancestors waiting for my in cyberspace. Real life is so much more interesting than fiction!

Mussared clan - including Robert M.

I found this charming family group photo in the family archive. I eventually figured out who they all were and shared with each of their descendants. My great grandfather Robert seated with the moustached on the left hand side had been born at sea on the way to Australia in 1854.




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Maryann Mussared2:09 pm 20 Nov 16

It is true that ancestors from some cultures are not well recorded, let alone digitised. Sadly, many records have been lost in many countries through war. I have great success with some branches of my family and hit ‘brick walls’ with others, especially middle European ancestors. We are lucky in Australia that having never suffered major battle conflicts on Australian soil, our written records are pretty intact. DNA is a whole other minefield, but some people say they have had incredible breakthroughs once they established where they may have come from originally.

wildturkeycanoe9:45 am 19 Nov 16

This is all well and good if your family descended from early settlers, but what of foreigners? In my country of ancestry, records only go back 4 or 5 generations and then disappear. Due to this I will never find out any more than that without DNA testing which only shows the beginning of our family tree. There will forever be a huge gap in the history that can never be filled. This could be true for millions of people whose records have been destroyed or lost in time.

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