Beyond the Internet: Week 33 Local History adds value to family history

Beyond the Internet

This is Week 33 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is Local History:  Centres, Libraries and Local Histories. This is part of the Archives and Libraries section of the series.

Local History Centres/Heritage Centres

Local History centres aka Heritage Centres can be gold mines for family history research. Of course not all centres are created equal, as much depends on the resources available and the enthusiasm and expertise of the centre teams, often volunteers.  Nevertheless there are nuggets of information to be gleaned. This is where you are likely to find old newspapers (perhaps not a full run) which may not yet have made it on Trove. You may also find that there are old-timers who have personal knowledge relating to the history of the place when your family lived there. The local history group may even have indexed the burials in the local cemetery.

The story relayed by Granny Gavin cannot be accurate given the age difference between the couple but it’s interesting that’s how she told their story.

As an example, back in the late 1980s I visited the Crows Nest Folk Museum on the Darling Downs. Thanks to the hard work of their volunteers I got an obituary from a small newspaper for my 2xgreat grandfather Denis Gavin; saw a war memorial board with his grandsons’ names; and was given an oral history about Denis’s second wife. While his wife’s story of their meeting has been disproved by further research, it was nevertheless an interesting story given to a small boy many decades before. (Remember that D for discernment attribute?)

A 1987 letter from the Crows Nest Historical Society re my 2x great grandfather, Denis Gavin.

Also on the centre’s shelves is likely to be a collection of books on the local history. Especially with older publications these may have had only a small print run and may be difficult to find elsewhere. In the Gatton Historical Centre I found a small book which told of a corroboree at Murphy’s Creek in the railway-building days when my ancestors were there. So far I’ve not located any other reference to it.

Similarly there may be a collection of local photographs which are not available online or in other libraries as local families donate images to the Centre’s collection.

But it’s not just paper documentation that can be helpful with your research. Some centres have old farming implements and kitchenware, that will illuminate your family’s pioneering days, and in some cases bring memories flooding back.

There is a local history section in the adjacent building to the Waltzing Mathilda Centre in Winton.

Driving from Darwin to Brisbane and Canberra through western towns, the mushrooming of these local heritage centres is evident. Whether it’s a reflection of the boom in our interest in Australian history or a strategy to bring life back to the country towns, it’s definitely a boon to our research.  Nor is this kind of heritage centre only available in Australia: there are similar places throughout the world. You can use this link to identify Aussie centres.

Even if there’s no heritage centre for your town of interest, do search for any local histories which may have been published. They are absolutely gold. I learnt so much from the local histories of Dorfprozelten am Main in Bavaria. You can set up a Google alert to let you know when one becomes available or you just search the internet from time to time. I’ve picked up a few local histories this way, as someone clears out their bookshelves of out-of-print books.

Local Studies in Libraries

You can see from all the tags how much info I’ve got from these two books.

While I’ve mainly focused on the local heritage centre or similar, don’t forget that there may be a dedicated local history section in the regional library: definitely worth exploring for different information.  An overseas example is the local history/local studies section of the Limerick Library, Co Limerick or the East Clare Heritage magazine. You just never know where you might find what you’re looking for, or just another family clue or snippet to flesh out your story.  I found a bundle of great photos from Chinchilla Library for the family of one of my Dorfprozelten Germans.

Overseas where would I be without CLASPand the Clare County Library’s local history collections in Ennis or the discoveries we made with the assistance of the librarians in Retford, Notthinghamshire?

Blogging about Local History successes

The world is your family tree oyster with blogging. Edited image from Office Clip Art.

Sharing your discoveries on your blog.

Here are a couple of links to recent blog posts about the discoveries made from local history research. There have been others over the months but these will give you the idea.

Roots’n’Leaves: Joan talks about her family discoveries in Bentley, Alberta, Canada.

My Genealogy Adventure: Tanya talks about the Richmond District Historical Centre.

Family History 4U: Sharn writes about the value of local history and her discoveries about Seventeen Mile Rocks in Brisbane and also Pomona. Her other post about Pomona discoveries is here.

Give it a go

Hopefully these stories will give you the impetus to use local history and heritage centres in your research whether in Australia or overseas. There is just so much you might discover, and don’t forget not to focus entirely on your own family name: the experience of others living in the same place will have many overlaps.

If you have had great discoveries in heritage centres or local history libraries, why not share them in a comment or in your own blog post.

Even though I’m on the downhill slope of this 52 week series, with the remaining topics mapped out (though occasionally re-sequenced), it’s feeling like a long haul. Any cheer squad support from my geneablogger buddies would be much appreciated. I think I can, I think I can. Well I know I will, but some weeks the energy and enthusiasm wane.

25 years of Family History: reflection and celebration: Part 1

As I lay awake the other night the penny dropped that I had started my family history research in Sept/Oct 1986 so it’s currently the 25th anniversary of my family history trail. This “hobby” quickly became a fascination and then an obsession for me. It has kept me interested through all these years, reinvigorated and energised me, and cheered me up when I’ve felt despondent or at a loose end…and those brick walls have occasionally made me feel like climbing walls.

How and why did I start my family history?

In Sept/Oct 1986, I went to a heritage fair in Brisbane’s William Street. The Genealogical Society of Queensland had a stall to promote tracing one’s family history – something that was by no means as popular then as it is now. I’d always wondered about my German surname and where it came from within Germany. This seemed like the time to get started.

My children were in primary and secondary school and becoming rather self-sufficient. My husband was studying and occupied with that. We were both working full-time so that left me with an urge to do something with my spare time. Little did I know how this obsession would take over my life even though occasionally it has also had to take a back seat to family, work and volunteer priorities.

I joined GSQ soon after the heritage fair and became member # 166.

Family history societies seem to have gone out of fashion these days but that really can be to the detriment of family historians. These societies have so many relevant published books and family histories, funeral company records, indexes of all sorts (many of which are not published online) as well as access, these days, to published CDs and online subscription sites, not to mention lots of people with varied FH skills. In short they can be a gold mine.

GSQ also held regular family history training sessions given by experts like Jennifer Harrison, whose particular expertise is Irish family history. I was able to learn a lot from all these talks. As now, they had specialist sub-groups with a focus on various nationalities. Obviously I joined the German group which turned out to be somewhat counter-productive. In those days I was repeatedly, and incorrectly, told there were no German Catholics in Queensland and no Germans from Bavaria. My own family research plainly demonstrated this was incorrect, with my Kunkel ancestor from Dorfprozelten, Bavaria settling in Queensland as did others from the same village. Hence the title of my paper at the 2006 Family History Congress called “They weren’t all Lutherans”.

How did family history research differ in those days?

Well the biggest difference is that personal computers had not really entered most people’s worlds. Sure we used specialised programs sometimes at work, but for family history it was all first-hand research and a notebook (the original thing, with paper, not a small laptop). As a result I’ve probably become over-dependent on paper-based archiving of my research.

Apart from visits to GSQ my research was done in four places about which I’ll provide a summary in Part 2: I used them then and I still use them now (read Part 2 and see why):

  1. Churches and Church Archives
  2. State Library of Queensland (SLQ)
  3. Queensland State Archives (QSA)
  4. Family History Centres of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints (LDS/Mormons)

Of course all these paper-based researches are, and were, combined with on-the-ground research of the places where my ancestors lived and worked, and especially where they were buried. My children still hate cemeteries which they say smell of dead grass. Local history museums were also useful with the Crows Nest Folk Museum volunteers being especially helpful.

So is this just a story of how great things were in the “good old days”? Not at all.

I love the speed, convenience and accessibility that comes with being able to search records by name or place, accessing a huge variety of information irrespective of where it is in the world.

I love that indexing and computers can (but not always) make it easier to find family even when they’ve moved long distances.

I love the fact that I can do a lot of preliminary research before I get to a records repository to look at those documents which aren’t available online and have my family strands and research strategy untangled before I get onsite.

I also love that it’s so much easier to locate distant cousins around the world.

However I do think that some of the skills I learned pre-computers are absolutely invaluable and current family historians sometimes ignore these amazing options at the expense of their research. There’s also a tendency to think certificates are optional extras rather than essentials for one’s own direct line – my birthday, Xmas and Mother’s Day presents for many years were more certificates. Yes, we can’t afford them all, but if we can afford to use subscription sites we can almost certainly afford to buy the key certificates.

I love my family history research and can’t quite imagine my life without it.