Sources and resources

Archives for family history

In this first post in my new series of articles about libraries and archives I think it is worth examining the role of archives and how we access them.

What is an archive?

An archive is a collection of historical records and also the physical place that these records are stored. Most archival records are unpublished materials, although some may have been published in some format. For example, digital images may be published online. Archival records tend to comprise mostly original records, although some archives also collect unpublished derivative materials.

Most archives that we use in family history are collected and managed by government or other organisations, but individual or family collections of papers can also be considered as archives.

Why archives are important in family history research

In family history research we rely heavily on government and church records. Few of these ever get published and are instead stored in archives. Archives may also hold business records, legal documents and personal papers, such as letters.

Few of our families have books written about them and even if there are books, best practice requires us to examine original records, which makes archives a treasure trove for research.

Searching archival records

Libraries and archives both use catalogues to list the material that they hold. Catalogues are then used by researchers to locate material. Most archives provide access to their catalogues online.

Unlike a library, describing unpublished archival material adequately in a catalogue is quite a challenge. This can make it difficult for a researcher to find material of relevance. Because of the challenge in cataloguing the material, it is not uncommon for archives to have a backlog of uncatalogued material.

While most libraries use the Dewey Decimal system to catalogue their items, each archive seems to invent their own system. To search an archive catalogue effectively, you need to learn their cataloguing system, appropriate search terms and short cuts.

On its own, the description of an archival record rarely provides much detail about the content of the material. Further detail may be provided by indexing, which lists key word descriptors. When a researcher searches a catalogue, the search examines the catalogue title and description, and the additional indexed text.

It is not uncommon for archives to have a huge backlog of material that has not been indexed. This is unfortunate for family historians, as we search for surnames and they are rarely included in the title or description of a record.

Accessing archives

Access to archives varies depending on the organisation managing them and the funding available for facilitating access. Most have their catalogues online and many allow researchers to order a copy online and have it sent to them. However, due to the difficulty in describing archival records and limited indexing, it can be challenging for a researcher to determine whether it is worth paying for a copy without first viewing the record.

Some archives provide access to digital images of their records online. However, digitising is an expensive and time-consuming process. In 2021, the National Archives of Australia reported that it had only digitised 4% of its collection (ABC article). And digitising is just the first step. Making the digital images available online requires additional resources that may be out of reach to smaller archives.

So, the message here? Archival records are essential when researching your family history. Learn about the collections that they hold, how they describe them in their catalogues, how to search their catalogues – and then visit them in person. By visiting an archive in person you can view materials before purchasing copies, view materials that have not been digitised and seek help from archivists.

Sources and resources

Source citation styles

A lot of family historians feel ill-equipped to create good source citations for their research. One of the aspects of source citations that can cause confusion is style and format – so let’s take a look at that today.

There are two things that make formatting a citation a bit tricky in family history. Firstly, there is no single standard format; and secondly, we use a lot of different types of sources.

Purpose of a source citation

It is helpful to consider the purpose of a source citation, as we can use that as a guide to the content that needs to be included and how that content might usefully be structured.

In family history, the purpose of a citation is:

  • to acknowledge the work of the creator of a source
  • to locate the source (so that you can view it again, or another researcher can view it for the first time)
  • to help analyse the information obtained from the source.

I have blogged about this before: Four good reasons to cite your sources Part 1 and Part 2.

Citation style

The format of a citation is dictated by the citation style.

Different disciplines tend to stick with a particular citation style. Here are the most common:

  • APA (American Psychological Association) is used by the social sciences, such as Education, Psychology and Sciences
  • MLA (Modern Language Association) is used by the Humanities
  • Chicago is used by Business, History and the Fine Arts.

Since family history is a type of history, we use the Chicago style. The variation that we use is called Chicago A. It includes footnotes and a bibliography. There is another version of the Chicago style called Chicago B, which uses author and date in brackets after the information instead of footnotes. Chicago B is not appropriate for family history because unpublished sources do not necessarily have an author.

Format

The format for a citation varies depending on the type of source. That is because there is different information needed to achieve our purpose – especially that purpose of locating the source. A citation for a published book for example, does not need information about the repository because there are multiple copies and you can find one by searching a library catalogue or bookshop website. A citation for an unpublished photograph on the other hand, needs information about the repository because it is a lot more challenging to find without that information. It also needs information about how the photograph is catalogued by that repository, such as a file number.

Example of a book citation in the Chicago style

Footnote: B.W. Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaican 1807-1834, Kingston Jamaica,  1995, 81.

Bibliography: Higman, B.W., Slave Population and Economy in Jamaican 1807-1834, Kingston Jamaica, The Press University of the West Indies, 1995.

The main differences between the format for a footnote and the bibliography are:

  • the author’s surname is in first position in the bibliography so that all publications by the one author are together when the list is arranged alphabetically
  • footnotes include a page number
  • footnotes generally include the location of publication but not the name of the publisher.

Some guides replace the commas with full stops.

Example of an unpublished source in the Chicago style

Footnote: John Willoughby Bean, unpublished photograph in album of Edwin and Lucy Bean, Item 6/1165, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

Bibliography: Anonymous, John Willoughby Bean (b1881 Bathurst NSW Australia), unpublished photograph in album of Edwin and Lucy Bean, Item 6/1165, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

The main differences between the format for a footnote and the bibliography for this source are that the bibliographic citation needs to include an author so that the list can be sorted alphabetically and it may contain additional identification details.


I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty detail about constructing a citation today – I will cover that in other posts. However, a couple of final tips.

If your source has been published, you can use an online catalogue to help you create the source citation. Catalogues such as World Cat or your State library have a free citation generator built into the catalogue. Search the catalogue for your source, then click the button in the citation generator and it will create a citation that you can copy.

If the citation generator does not include Chicago style, then use Turabian. If the citation generator has both, you might find that the Chicago style places the year of publication after the author’s name and Turabian places it at the end of the citation.

There are a lot of citation guides for the Chicago style online. However, the problem is that they tend to focus on published material. If you need help creating a citation for unpublished material, it is best to use a guide developed by a genealogist.

Methodology, Sources and resources

Study the repositories

Learning about the types of sources that provide useful information for family history is essential, but so too is learning about the repositories.

Identifying the repository

A repository is a place which holds sources. A genealogical source is anything that provides you with information for family history. Sources include books, journal articles, birth certificates, wills and records of land ownership. They also include items such as photographs, handwritten poems, advertisements, or something less tangible such as personal recollections.

So, if these are examples of the range of source types, how does that help us identify a repository?

Some are easy. Buildings, such as libraries and archives; places, such as cemeteries; and websites that are managed by an institution or organisation.

Others are a bit trickier.

What is the repository for a website managed by an individual? What about sources held in a personal collection? And what is the repository when the source is the memory of a person?

Another complication is that an institution or organisation may manage multiple repositories, and an individual can manage multiple websites. The NSW State Archives, for example, holds sources in buildings at various locations around the state and also holds some sources online.

Finding sources

Why is it important to identify the repository? The first reason is so that we can find the sources.

When we research, we develop research questions, think about the information we need to answer the questions, make a list of sources that might provide that information, then make a list of repositories where the sources may be held. In this process, we may research the sources to determine which ones are likely to be useful, but how much time do we spend researching the repositories?

As mentioned above, an institution, organisation or individual may have more than one repository. We need to know that before we go looking for sources. Have the sources been digitised and placed online, or do we have to visit in person?

We also need to know how the repository is managed. Each repository is different. They have different collection policies that determine the sources they hold. They have different methods for organising the sources, describing them and presenting them to researchers. They may even have different versions of a source.

For example, a state library and a state archive may both have collections of convict indents but they may cover different date ranges and they may catalogue them differently. In addition, one repository may have the original sources and another may have derivative copies.

Learning about repositories increases our chances of finding the sources that we need.

Citing a repository

Knowledge about repositories helps us cite our sources more effectively.

It is true that we cite our sources, not the repositories. A citation that just says the information came from Ancestry, for example, is not a good citation because Ancestry is a repository.

However, that does not mean that we never mention a repository in a citation. In fact, citations for family history research often do mention the repository. Why is that?

I have written before about how to craft a good citation. One of the key rules is that you need to include the information necessary to find the source. If a source is unpublished, for example, it is unlikely to be found unless the repository is included in the citation. This could be the name of the archive or cemetery and its location. In the case of a website, locational information in the form of a URL performs the same function; and for a personal collection or personal recollection the owner is identified in the citation. If the source used is a derivative source, it is good practice to include information about the repository of both the derivative and original versions.

Example, unpublished source in an archive:

John Augustus Milbourne Marsh, unpublished journal commences 1 September 1848 on ship from England to Australia, Item 2/301, Society of Australian Genealogists, Sydney Australia.

Example, online derivative source with information about the repository of the original:

FamilySearch, “England Bishop’s transcripts,” database (www.FamilySearch.org: accessed 21 Jun 2016), entry for Frances, daughter of Peter & Frances Hawkins; St Nicholas Church, Brighton, Sussex, FHL film no. 1,468,821, page 186, no. 1481; citing West  Sussex Record Office, Chichester, no.: EP II/16/27A-M.

Using sources

Information about the repositories also helps us use the sources effectively.

When the people who manage repositories gather sources together, store them and then present them to researchers they have an impact on the sources.

They may alter the sources – accidentally or deliberately. They may leave some parts of a source out or reorganise them, or group different types of sources together. They may provide explanatory material or material that presents their interpretation of the sources.

Learning about the repositories helps us understand these impacts and this understanding improves our analysis of the sources.

Methodology, Sources and resources

How to use other people’s family history research

Are you reluctant to use family trees and family histories produced by other researchers?

It is not surprising if you feel that way. There is an abundance of poor quality trees and family histories around.

However, using other people’s research could advance your own research. So, how do we do this safely?

Why use other people’s research

Information from other people’s family trees or family histories can be extremely valuable.

They may have:

  • found sources that you did not find
  • have knowledge you do not have
  • visited places you could not
  • known people personally that you never met
  • have family mementos, photographs and records not found anywhere else
  • traced a line further back than you
  • thought of possibilities that did not occur to you.

Using other people’s research can save you time and get you information that you could not obtain on your own.

Wikitree is an online family tree where researchers collaborate to produce a single tree. It encourages sharing of information and collaborative problem solving.

Evaluating other people’s research

First, choose which research is worth using

You will not save any time if you use poor quality research.

When choosing which family trees and family histories to use, you should filter for usefulness and reliability as this will reduce the likelihood of errors in the research.  

It is advantageous to know as much as possible about the person who produced the research. Information about their experience, knowledge and approach to research helps us judge whether they are capable of quality research.

Find out more about the person who created a family tree on Ancestry by searching for their public profile

If you have the choice, it is usually better to avoid using research that does not contain source citations or has very few. Citations give clues about the reliability of the information and they help you track down the source for verification.

Research without citations may still be worth the effort if it was produced by an experienced and knowledgeable researcher, or provides useful information that you do not mind taking time to verify.

Early local histories often do not contain source citations, but they still provide useful information for family history research

Next, evaluate the source, the information and the evidence

I have written about source evaluation in other posts, for example Using Online Books in Family History.

Finally, corroborate or refute the conclusions

Other people’s research does not provide answers. It provides a list of sources and draft conclusions to test. This is probably the most important step when using other people’s research.

Track down and examine the sources that they used. You should also gather additional sources.

Citing other people’s research

If you extract information from someone’s research, such as a birth date and place, and verify it with appropriate sources, such as a birth certificate and baptism record, then you should cite those sources rather than the research. A researcher does not ‘own’ the information.

However, if you have not yet tracked down the sources from which the researcher obtained their information, maps, photos or diagrams, then you should cite their research as an interim measure.

If you use the researcher’s original work, such as a story they wrote or ideas that they expressed, then you do need to cite them.

Advice, Methodology, Sources and resources

Tips for creating a good family tree chart

When you create a family tree chart you are communicating – with your future self and with others. The effectiveness of this communication depends on how well you create your chart.

I used to work for the Society of Australian Genealogists as their archives officer and I still volunteer in the archives, processing donations of family histories. A key part of that process is making the donated family histories accessible to researchers. Unfortunately, the quality of most family tree charts makes that really difficult to achieve, because the creator paid little attention to what they might mean to future readers. So I have written this article to share my insights with you.

Creating a chart

You can create a family tree chart in many different ways. Here are the main ones:

  • Hand-drawn on paper
  • Fill in a template on paper or as a fillable computer file
  • Generated from family history software
  • Generated from family history charting software or generic charting software
  • Online trees
  • Generic programs such as Excel, Word and PowerPoint
  • Design software such as Canva.

None of these are inherently better than the others in terms of the quality of the chart, although charting software does prompt you to include useful information and helps produce a neat and consistently formatted chart.

The type also impacts on the survivability of a chart. Pencil-drawn charts on thin paper, for example, do not survive well and this affects legibility.

Extract of a fan chart generated by family history software showing the ancestors of Winifred May Saywell (1911-1999)
Extract of a fan chart generated by family history software

Things to consider

A good family tree chart must be relevant and appropriate to your purpose, as discussed in my first article, Different charts for different purposes.

A good family tree chart also needs to fulfil the principles of good communication:

  • Clarity and legibility
  • Consistency
  • Accuracy
  • Context
  • Precision
  • Readability
Extract of family tree in the Collier Diary from the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists Item 2-151, showing the family crest and four names.
Extract of family tree in the Collier Diary held in the archives of
the Society of Australian Genealogists Item 2-151

You can learn about what makes a good or bad family tree chart by examining charts that others have produced. Do they communicate well? Are you able to interpret the chart and learn about the family history of the subject?

Checklist

Label or title

A good family tree chart has a title or label that describes the subject, the creator and the date. This information helps the reader understand the content of the tree, and how it relates to the family history. It also provides a timeframe, which helps place that version of the family tree into a temporal context and assists with version control.

A title or label also provides information that can be included in a source citation, if you chart is used by another researcher.

Without a label or title, the value of a family tree chart to other researchers is vastly diminished. This is particularly important if you are contemplating depositing your chart with an archive, library or family history society; or sharing it with other researchers or family.

Family tree chart label 'Ancestry chart'
Not a useful label!
Family tree chart label 'Ancestor Fan of Barry Hawkins'
A more useful label as it identifies the focus person in the tree, but it could still be more informative

Standards

If you use standards that are commonly used by other genealogists, then they are more likely to understand your family tree chart.

Example standards:

  • Chapman codes as abbreviations for place names
  • Surnames in capitals (this is common but not universal)
  • Use maiden names for females
  • Date formats (day month year, with all four digits for the year)
  • Abbreviations, for example, see the list at Ancestry
Extract of Chapman codes for England
Some of the Chapman codes for England

Key

It is a good idea to include a key on your chart even if you use common standards, as the reader may not be familiar with the standards or may not be bothered looking them up.

Numbering

The usefulness of family tree charts can be improved if the people in the chart are numbered. Numbering helps the reader distinguish between individuals of the same name and you can also use it to cross reference the name in the chart to other materials and reports that document your family history.

Family history software provides unique identifier numbers for each person. There are also genealogical numbering systems that are familiar to most genealogists.

Details

My first article discussed the information that you need to include in a chart, such as names, dates and places, so I won’t repeat that here other than to emphasise that a good chart includes the right information and the right level of detail for the purpose of the chart.

Context

The value of a family tree chart increases considerably if it is associated with supporting material that provides context. This context helps the reader interpret the chart and, similarly, the chart helps the reader interpret the supporting material. Part of that contextual material might be a description of the purpose of the chart.