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.