Sources and resources

Using diaries in family history

Diaries offer a tantalising vision into the lives of our ancestors, but do we know how to get the most out of them in family history? They appear to provide us with direct evidence about what the author did and thought, a private look into their lives and the type of person they were. They seem to provide an insight into the past from the perspective of an individual. It is of course, not that simple.

Most diaries describe personal experiences and observations. Some focus on the external environment such as the weather, or describe historical events. As original and contemporary sources, diaries contain details that are rarely documented in other types of sources such as history books or vital records, and this is what makes them so valuable in family history.

Journal of Eliza Susannah Armstrong (nee Malet), dated 1907, held by Society of Australian Genealogists, Armstrong Papers, Item 04/028306

Diaries can contribute to family history research by providing information about family members, their friends and associates, and the nature of the relationships between them. They may also provide information about events, activities and daily life that add colour to stories of the family, and provide insights into social aspects of their lives, such as work and leisure.

Tips for using diaries

Firstly, gather all the information you can about the diary. Learn as much as you can about the author and their background, then put them into context with information about the times they lived and their extended family. This will help you understand the diary as you read it and identify the people referred to, as diaries rarely refer to people using full names and may even use nicknames.

Not all diary writers put their own names in their diary, but you can still gather clues to their identity. The Society of Australian Genealogists has a historically significant diary written by a man responsible for provisioning on the HMS Cameleon, a brig in the British Royal Navy in 1800. He didn’t feel the need to write his own name in it, but by comparing the events and dates in the diary to the family history of the diary’s last owner and to other documents donated with the diary, the diarist has been narrowed down to two possibilities.

Unidentified author, Leather bound ship journal, dated 27 October 1800 to 9 March 1801, dealing with trade and supply of provisions to British Navy and colonies during French Revolutionary Wars. Author may have been Sir James Meek (1778-1856) or John Marsh (1747-1823). Held by Society of Australian Genealogists, Harrison Collection, Item 2/297

Next, identify when and where the diary was written. Knowing this helps to set it into the context of both historical events and family events. This helps you interpret the events being discussed.

Now think about why the author may have written the diary. The author may state this, but if not you may get clues from the content and language. Motivations can vary. Diaries may be written to record daily activities, as self-expression or self-reflection, as a gift to pass on to their descendants, or just for the pleasure of writing. The purpose of the diary is important in determining the reliability of the content. It is unwise to accept diaries at face value. All authors make choices about the information to include and how to present it, even in a diary which they do not imagine anyone else reading. Diarists are subject to biases and in diaries they may be more frank about their opinions on events and perhaps less concerned with accuracy.

‘I never met with a parcle of more discontent fellows in my life the[y] only want more Provisions to give it to the damed whores the Convict Women of whome the[y] are very fond Since they brock throu the Bulk head and had connection with them – I never could have thought that there wair So many abandond wreches in England, the[y] are ten thousand time worse than the men Convicts, and I am affraid that we will have a great dele more trouble with them’

Transcribed extract from Ralph Clark, Journal kept on the Friendship during a voyage to Botany Bay and Norfolk Island 1787 – 1792, unpublished, held by the State Library of New South Wales

Examine the format and condition of the diary. Is it the original version, or has it been copied or transcribed? Diaries are often edited when transcribed or published, to omit content considered private or controversial. They may also have content added. Check whether spelling and place names have been changed, and if pages are missing. Consider whether the volume is the complete diary or if there may be other volumes.

Perhaps the most important step when analysing a diary is to search for and examine associated material, either in the same collection or elsewhere. Family history collections often have associated materials such as photos, family trees, letters and other diaries which provide provenance and context. They can help you date the diary, identify people referred to in the diary, clarify events and corroborate the information. You may also be able to use the diary to do the same for the associated materials. If there are no associated family materials, search for unconnected materials from the same location and time period.

If you have access to an original diary, you should transcribe it as part of your analysis even if someone else has already done so. This process is a good way to view the content critically. If you are working with a transcription, try to get a copy of the original so that you can analyse the handwriting. The type of writing and ink can help to date the diary, and help determine whether the diary had a single author or whether someone has added content at a later date. Comparing the handwriting to other family documents may help identify the author of the diary or those other documents.

All mentions of people, places and events should be recorded and followed up. This enhances the stories in the diary, but it also informs the family history. Information in diaries can be fragmentary and confusing, so consider compiling a spreadsheet of names, dates, locations and notes to help you bring the information together into a structured format. It is also a good idea to incorporate as much of the information as possible into your family tree. If you are using family history software, you can add the diarist’s friends and associates to your tree, either in the Events/Facts section of the diarist or as unconnected individuals. Extracts from diaries can be incorporated into your family history as images, full or partial transcriptions, quotations or paraphrasing.

Citing diaries

Unpublished – Author’s name, brief description and dates covered, where the diary is held or the current private owner

e.g. Ralph Clark, Journal kept on the Friendship during a voyage to Botany Bay and Norfolk Island 1787 – 1792, unpublished, held by the State Library of New South Wales

Published – use the citation format for a book

Tips on caring for diaries

If you have an original diary or journal, it should be stored using archival materials and techniques. Acid free wrap is a good idea, as it will keep the pages together and reduce the risk of damage to the cover or spine. Diaries are best stored flat in an archival box in a humidity controlled environment. Digitise them so that you can work with the images and minimise handling of the original.

Where to find diaries

Here are just some places to look for diaries (primarily Australian). Remember to use a variety of terms when searching catalogues – diary, journal, notebook, logbook.

Diaries may be published or unpublished manuscripts, so be sure to check both archives and libraries. The Society of Australian Genealogists has over 200 in its library and hundreds more in the archives.

Other examples: the National Library of Australia’s immigrant diaries, the State Library of South Australia, the State Library of Victoria and the State Library of New South Wales, the Library of Congress and the British Library. Museums may also have diaries. For example, the Vaughan Evans library in the National Maritime Museum of Australia.

Search for diaries in online book repositories such as the Internet Archive, university collections and online projects such as The Great Diary Project.


Truth and proof in family history

It is not uncommon to hear genealogists talking about finding truth or proving their family history. But are we setting ourselves up for failure? What is truth, after all? And what is proof? Are either attainable?

I do not want to sound pessimistic, but how we think about family history determines how we approach it and the results that we achieve. I believe that it is better to set achievable goals and reach them, than to set unattainable goals and end up frustrated by our failures, or even worse, fooled into thinking that we have achieved them when we have not.

The reality is that there is no absolute truth in studying history and we cannot definitively prove anything about our family’s past. History is not the past. History is our knowledge about the past and knowledge is based on the information that we access, our experiences and our education. Unlike Bill and Ted, we cannot time travel to observe what happened in the past. And even if we could, our experiences and our interpretation of events would differ from person to person. History is not objective. It is an interpretation of the past, which means that different people interpret the past differently and find different meanings in events that happened.

The genealogist’s knowledge of the past is based on sources that document aspects of the past. Those sources vary considerably, depending on when they were made, by whom and for what purpose. They do not record everything that happened and not all sources survive, which means family history is based on just a fraction of the past and of the sources that were created.

One popular approach to addressing these issues is to prioritise the use of original sources over derivative sources. It is true that original sources tend to be created closer to the time of the event and are perhaps more likely to be an official record of an event. It is also true that derivative sources are inherently flawed because the process of deriving one source from another often leads to errors or deliberate changes, and introduces the interpretation of another individual. These factors suggest that original sources are more reliable than derivative sources. However, it is unwise to fall into the trap of assuming that they provide ‘truth’ or prove any of the details of the event. All sources need to be analysed and evidence needs to be gathered from multiple sources. An original source, on its own, does not contain truth, nor does it provide proof.

Rather than striving for truth or proof, I aim to make my family history as accurate as possible, with reasonable and defensible conclusions. This can be achieved by conducting a reasonably exhaustive search and a thorough, objective analysis, followed by systematic and comprehensive documentation.

Reasonableness is a term often used in law and it is extremely useful in family history research. A reasonable conclusion means that, given the circumstances and the evidence available, would other experienced genealogists reach the same conclusions as we have reached in our family history? Asking ourselves this question as we document our research is a good way to test the quality of our work.

Reasonable conclusions can only be reached by conducting a reasonably exhaustive search. A search is reasonably exhaustive if we have examined all the sources that another experienced genealogist would expect to have been searched in that circumstance. Defensible is another very useful concept and is closely related to reasonableness. Defensible means that if other experienced genealogists tested your conclusions using the same or different sources, they would reach the same conclusions.

So, it is not truth or proof that we should strive for, but satisfaction that we have done enough to reach the most accurate conclusions possible and that we remain open to new evidence that may alter our conclusions.

Sources and resources

Using online books in family history

Books are an essential source for family history research and there are vast numbers of online books available for you to access from your home computer.

Books may contain family stories or family trees, or copies of records such as baptisms, marriages and burials. Or they may contain photos of times past, places we cannot visit or people we never met. They may also provide historical information which helps us understand what life was like in a certain place and time. This information can help us identify the types of sources available for our research and where the sources might be found now.

Where to find them

Here are just some of the websites with online books that can be used in family history.

The Internet Archive is the one that I use most frequently. It is a non-profit library of digital resources. In addition to books it also has movies, software, music and websites. Access is free, but you do need to register for an account to access all the content.

Open Library is a project of the Internet Archive.

Project Gutenberg claims to be the oldest digital library but has a much smaller collection than the Internet Archive and focuses on literature.

Google books makes finding books easier, but most are not available to read.

The Hathi Trust is a partnership of academic and research institutions that provides digital books from libraries around the world. You can log in as a guest, or read books which are ‘full-view’.

There are also geographical based websites, such as the Library of Congress for American research and the Digital Library of the Caribbean.

Many libraries provide online access to books in their collections. The NSW State Library and the National Library of Australia, for example, provide access to books, collections and databases to researchers who hold a free library card.

Tips for using online books

Before you use the information you find in an online book, it is important to take time to analyse it so that you can make an informed decision about the accuracy of the information it provides.

Check whether the entire book has been uploaded or just extracts. If the book contains a Foreword or Introduction, take the time to read it.

Examine who authored the book. What were their qualifications? How informed were they about the subject? What sources did they rely on? Is there any indication about their perspectives on the subject or potential biases? Have they written other books? How analytical and objective has the author been while presenting the information? What evidence is provided? How thorough was their research? How persuasive are their arguments? Is the book well organised and skillfully written? Have they provided source citations, captioned the photographs and included a reference list or a bibliography?

Who published the book? Do they have a good reputation? Are they known for publishing scholarly publications or is the target audience the general public?

When was it written and published? How does it fit into scholarly debate about the subject? Is the information still current or is it out of date or has it been refuted by subsequent work? When was it uploaded? Is there a later edition that may have additional information or corrected errors?

Check if the book is still under copyright. Older books may be out of copyright, which is great for family history because it means you can use images from the book in your own published work without infringing copyright.

Citing online books

Use the standard book citation format, but add information about where and when you accessed it to clarify which version you used. Some people suggest adding the full URL but I prefer to use the URL for the main page of the website. Do not forget to add the citation to images as well as text.


Oliver, Vere Langford (ed), Caribbeana: Being Miscellaneous Papers Relating to the History, Genealogy, Topography and Antiquities of the British West Indies, vol. 1, London England, Mitchell, Hughes and Clarke, 1910, Internet Archive accessed 23 November 2021.


Five good reasons not to limit your research to your direct line

Family history research is a huge undertaking, so it is not surprising that some people decide to make it more manageable by focusing only on their direct line. Here are five good reasons why this is not a good strategy.


All sources can contain errors – even original sources and official documents. The most frequent causes of errors are when the informant provides incorrect information or does not have sufficient information, or when the person recording the information mishears or misunderstands the information provided. Limiting your research to your direct line means you are less likely to be using sources which are independent of each other and this means errors are less likely to be picked up.


Sources are often incomplete and lacking some information. The more sources you look at, the greater the chance of filling the gaps.


Let’s face it, some people are more interesting or famous than others. These ones tend to have more written about them and the information provided can shed light on the whole family, not just the individual concerned.


If you are using DNA evidence in your research, then researching your extended family is essential. Using DNA evidence effectively is fundamentally dependent upon researching the relationships between people in the extended family.


When you research your extended family you are more likely to identify and perhaps communicate with other people researching that family. They may be able to assist with your research, have information that you do not and perhaps even family photographs you have never seen before.

Case studies, Methodology

Is DNA essential evidence for family historians?

Tonight I am participating in a panel discussion for the Society of Australian Genealogists about whether DNA is the 21st century tool for all family historians. I have been invited partly because of my experience using DNA in family history and partly because I specialise in the research process. I run the Society’s Family History Fundamentals course and I also lecture on a range of methodological topics such as research planning, proving your family history and source citations.

DNA is used by a lot of family historians. The question posed to me is, from a methodological viewpoint, should it be used by all family historians?

I first had my DNA tested with Family Tree DNA in 2017. At that time I was not fully aware of the potential that DNA had for my research, but I did have a question that I hoped it might answer. I had been researching my family history for over a decade but had still not been able to figure out who my paternal grandfather’s father was. His parents were unmarried and his father was not listed on his birth certificate. So I hoped that the results of DNA testing might provide some clues. When I received my results I realised that the process was not that simple. I had to learn how to analyse the results and incorporate them into my research. I also had to maximise the potential evidence from my DNA, so I tested with Ancestry DNA, uploaded to Gedmatch and MyHeritage, built up a large family tree on Ancestry and tested available family members.

When we research our family history, we are constructing a view of the past based on information that has been left behind. We obtain that information from sources. We interpret the information and use it as evidence to reach conclusions about the past. Traditional research primarily relies on documentary sources such as birth death and marriage records, but may also incorporate non-documentary sources such as oral history. DNA is another type of non-documentary source. Why might it be considered an essential source?

Our aim in family history is to make it as accurate as possible. If we do not, then we risk creating a family history that is not ours. Accuracy requires that our conclusions be reasonable and defensible. To achieve that we have to use the ‘best sources’ and conduct what is referred to as ‘a reasonably exhaustive search’. Can family history research be considered reasonably exhaustive if it has not utilised DNA evidence? To answer this we need to look at the power of DNA evidence.

Our family trees are based on establishing biological relationships between parents and their children. Documentary sources can provide evidence to support or refute these relationships, but it is rare that the strength of the support or refutation is definitive – usually, there is scope for further evidence to change the conclusion. However, DNA evidence is different. It can often provide definitive support or refutation, or at least something very close to definitive.

I have two examples in my own family history where the DNA evidence totally contradicts all the documentary evidence and in both cases I am convinced that the DNA evidence is correct.

The first is the identification of Gottlieb Malchow as the father of my great great grandmother Christina Malchow. Gottlieb was married to her mother, raised her and was listed as her father on her death certificate. Yet, the DNA evidence definitively refutes that he was her biological father. The DNA evidence also suggests who actually was her biological father. To me, it does not seem possible that there is another explanation for the evidence, so I think that I would argue that the evidence is also definitive about the identity of her biological father (though I am open to additional evidence to the contrary).

The second example where DNA has definitively disproven the documentary evidence is the discovery that my entire paternal line (except for my father) is not biological. Again, the DNA evidence is definitive. I have no DNA matches at all on that line and I do not match my cousin or uncle. It just is not possible for that line to be biological.

DNA evidence is also powerful evidence when the available documentary evidence is either lacking or is only circumstantial. The same great great grandmother I mentioned above, Christina, had six children. She was unmarried and her family were ashamed by her actions and the names of the fathers of her children were deliberately omitted from the records. The evidence that George Bassett was the father of her daughter, my great grandmother, was circumstantial – town rumour and the fact that one of his sisters brought up one of Christina’s other children. However, the DNA evidence is strong. Thirty DNA matches between myself and descendants of George’s siblings definitively support the conclusion that the father was from that family. A further match from a descendant of another child of George, together with the circumstantial evidence means that the conclusion that George was the father, while not definitive, is reasonable and defensible.

Extract of the summary of DNA matches to George’s family

So, DNA evidence can be essential in disproving documentary evidence and it can be essential where documentary evidence is insufficient. The final example of how DNA evidence is essential in family history is where there is no documentary evidence at all.

After discovering that my paternal line was not biological, I managed to identify my father’s biological mother by obtaining his adoption records. His mother was named in the records, but his father was not. It was only by analysing the DNA evidence that I was able to identify his biological father and use that information to build out my biological paternal line. While initially my conclusion about his identity was tentative, further analysis has built up a body of evidence that makes my conclusion reasonable and defensible.

When researching family history we are expected to use the best sources by conducting a reasonably exhaustive search. Without using evidence from DNA testing my family history would contain substantial inaccuracies and I would never have been able to build my paternal biological family tree. DNA evidence is therefore arguably the best source, when used in combination with documentary sources. I do believe DNA evidence is essential evidence for family historians.