submitted by Dean Coroneos on 26.07.2005
By Steve Meacham
Sydney Morning Herald. Tuesday July 26th. 2005. Page 11.
"Once, skeletons were locked in the closet. No longer, as we dig deeper for the roots of our family trees", writes Steve Meacham.
More than 40 years ago, says Heather Garnsey, the sober staff who worked behind the counters of the Society of Australian Genealogists felt they had to protect innocents from the “C” word.
If someone came in researching their family tree and asked to see the all-important 1828 census, they wouldn’t be allowed to look themselves. A member of staff would do it for them, fearing the worst.
“If it was found that they had convict origins, they'd be told, "No, there wasn't anything of interest for you". [The researcher knew that the person would not be happy to have convict ancestry.] They felt they had to mask the truth. "The convict stain was too awful to admit".
And now? Garnsey executive officer of Australia’s premier genealogical body, laughs. “Now it’s a badge of honour to collect as many convicts in your faniily tree as possible - even if you wouldn’t have wanted to meet any of them today.”
Garnsey is speaking at the society's colonial headquarters at the Rocks - a building which has been literally transported, like so much of the nation, from somewhere else; it was moved, brick by brick from the Domain in the 1970s. She has been in the job since 1988, the bicentennial year, an anniversary which kick-started Australians’ interest in researching their past.
So she is the person to ask why genealogy is suddenly in vogue, a phenomenon which crosses gender and generation.
Several reasons, she says. There’s the emotional: “For most people it is the need to feel a sense of identity to know where they fit in.”
The technological: “The internet has made a huge difference because of people’s ability to go ego-surfing. People put their names into a Goagle search and discover; ‘Hey there was someone with the same name as me in the 1750's'.
The recreational: “Alot of young professionals who couldn’t do it before because they were in the office all week or taking the kids to sports at weekends can now research their family trees on their computer at 11pm.”
But those reasons apply to most of the Western wodd. What seems to be particular to Australia is that we are part of a multicultural brew, still in the cauldron. Most of us (or our recent ancestors) came from somewhere else. In this sense, our mobility is both a cause for pride and for self-examination.
As Garnsey says “We have people in here who are very proud of the fact that they are eight-generational Australian. But there are also Lebanese family history groups, Chinese, Italian.. .who want to preserve their heritage - not just for that part of the faniily which came to Australia, but those who stayed behind.”
Such ethnic groups didn’t exist a decade ago, says Garnsey. The fact that they do now reflects each community’s determination to make sure history remembers the part their ancestors played in the shaping of Australia.
Increasingig today’s genealogists are embarking on a global search. Take Joyce Ryerson, the 88-year-old Sydney woman after whom the family tree research tool the Ryerson Index is named. Her grandmother’s family came from Wales, her grandfather’s from Yorkshire, her husband’s from Canada. And her great-great-grandson will soon move from Texas to Slovakia.
As individual families have become more dispersed, people have begun to focus on bow the human race as a whole is related. In April, the National Geographic Society announced the Genographic Project, a five-year study sponsored by IBM, the computer giant. The aim - no less - is to trace human migration over the past 60,000 years using population genetics and molecular biology. It is DNA-based genealogy - and it is the face of the future.
But it is less ambitious ventures such as the Ryerson Index which have the most immediate effect, simply by making material that was previously difficult to track down now readily available on the internet.
The guru behind the index is John Graham, a leading member of the Dead Persons Society, “a group of genealogists interested in pushing the boundaries of technology to help us with our hobby”.
In 1998 Graham floated the idea of a web-based index of death notices from the Herald. Because of changes in the privacy laws, genealogists - or “genies” as they call themselves — have no access to official records of deaths which occurred in NSW after 1985. In fact; the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and
Marriages does not release names after 1945, which means the genies rely on the Probate Index, which ends in 1985. Graham realised that “the Herald covers the largest number of death notices in NSW...in the l970's 62per cent of deaths registered in NSW were reported in the paper”. If a team of volunteers could be persuaded to comb through copies of the Herald, they could put together a research tool which could be used by genies anywhere in the world.
His team started work, but the break-through dtdn’t ‘come until the following year. As Graham recalls it; he was giving an update to the Dead Persons Society when Ryerson said: “I’ve got some Heralds in my laundry if you’d like to index them... Fourteen years’ worth .....every Herald since 1985.” [See previous entry in this section of kythera-family, for more details and a photo of Ms Ryerson.]
Graham says Ryerson's laundry was the genealogical equivalent of a goldmine”. It took the index team three years to work through the pile, recording every name and detail relevant to a genealogist (date of death, age, place of death). Plus the date and name of the paper each notice appeared in; the Ryerson Index has expanded to 92 newspapers, most of them tinyweeklies from as far north as Townsville, as far south as Berwick in Victoria.
This month, the 120 volunteers celebrated a milestone their millionth entry. That makes the Ryerson Index the biggest of its type in the world, says Graham. “As far as newspaper-based indexes are concerned, there’s nothing that comes remotely close to us.”
Australia’s libraries are also in the vanguard of the genealogical revolution. In Canberra, the National Library of Australia has just installed 28 new digital microfilm readers in its refurbished newspaper and microfilm reading room. On some days there is a queue of genealogists waiting to use them. Elizabeth Dracoulis, the library’s director of reader services, says the genies are drawn by “the best newspaper collection in Australia”, stored either on microfilm or microfiche.
At present researching what is on those newspapers is still a painstaking process. Yet the technology exists to digitise the collection, arm it with a search engine and put it on the web. Such a project would cost about $4 million, money the library doesn’t have. Yet the benefits to genealogists — let alone university researchers across many disciplines - would be incalculable.
But libraries hold much more of interest to genealogists than newspapers. As Dracoulis says, names and dates provide only the skeletal structure. What turns a family tree into a family history are the other details of a life. And for that; someone researching their family history might need to look at maps, photos, details of land holdings — all things stored somewhere in Australia’s linked library system.
Garnsey describes the difference between a family tree and a family history this way “Most people start by collecting names and dates to make a basicfamilytree. Butitis the stories of those people, the researching of their lives, the fun part that makes it a family history. You’re virtually a detective.”
So how do you begin? Garnsey compares the process to a jigsaw. ‘You start with yourself and move backwards. You’re the piece in the middle of the jigsaw. Two pieces must fit around you and four pieces - your grandparents - around that. You have to find those right pieces before you can move onto the next stage. You can’t cheat by doing the neat edges first like you can with a normal jigsaw.”
Still the internet has made the search for pieces much easier, says Garnsey. “A lot of people dabbled with their family history in the past and gave up because it was too hard. It’s worth having another go because of things like the Ryerson Index.”
As for her own family tree: “I’m now back in Devon to a marriage in 1590.” Anyone with English or Welsh roots, she says, “should be able to trace their families back to the early 1800s, even late 1700s”. Scotland and Ireland had different registration systems, and equivalent records in many European countries have been destroyed by war.
Ironically it is a lot easier tracing your ancestors if they were convicts. “If you were a convict there would be a record of when you arrived in the colony, what crime you committed, details of how tall you were, the colour of your hair and eyes, whether or not you had children, and when you gained your ticket of release. If you came out as a free settler looking for gold in the 1850s, your name might not have even appeared on the shipping list. As long as you paid your passage, the government wasn’t interested.”
But no, she doesn’t have any convict ancestors herself. “My mob came out in control of the convicts. One of my ancestors was the matron of the Female Factory in Parramatta.”
The Ryerson Index can be accessed at:
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