Sources and resources

Going beyond online family trees

Most of us consult online family trees on sites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch, but there are other places to find family trees too – in family histories that have been deposited in libraries and archives.

Compiled family histories are a great resource, because they don’t just contain family trees. They may also have associated materials such as letters and original documents. This extra information provides context – the histories behind the trees. It may also provide extra evidence to support or refute your conclusions and extra details to enrich your stories.

Where do you find compiled family histories?

Libraries that specialise in family history tend to have the largest collections of compiled family histories. In Australia, for example, the Society of Australian Genealogists’ library contains close to 5000 published family histories and the Genealogical Society of Victoria holds over 2000. Local libraries and large generalist libraries may also contain some, but their family history collections tend to focus on ‘how-to’ books and registers, rather than the end result of research.  

Archives may also hold compiled family histories and family history collections that contain family trees, but it depends on the purpose of the archives. Again, the archives of family history organisations are your best bet for finding compiled family histories.

Online collections of books, such as the Internet Archive, the Hathi Trust and Google Books, are also good places to search for family histories. The relevance of these books to your research will vary depending on which countries you are researching. For example, I haven’t found much relating to my Australian research but I have found some great resources for my Jamaican research.

FamilySearch has been digitising family histories in its own collection and collections of major libraries and research partners. They have over 375,000 digitised publications in their Digital Library.

The FamilySearch wiki also provides information about compiled family histories for some locations. See for example, United States Compiled Genealogies.

Accessing compiled family histories

The biggest challenge in accessing compiled family histories is identifying them in the catalogue. It is pointless searching for ‘family history’ or ‘genealogy’ as that search will bring up all books in the field, including guides and indexes.

Family history libraries do tend to make clearer distinctions in their catalogues between different types of family history books and may even give compiled family histories a separate classification to help you find them.

Archives tend to allow you to search their catalogues for your ancestors by name, which may help you find compiled family histories; and some libraries (such as the Genealogical Society of Victoria) have an online name index that achieves the same outcome.

Accessing digital copies of compiled family histories can present a challenge, due to copyright restrictions. Older publications are easier, as they are out of copyright. I find that visiting a family history library in person is usually the best way to access compiled family histories.

Family history indexes provide bibliographies of published family histories. Some countries have published indexes and some have online indexes. In Australia, for example, Family History Connections has an online index of over 10,000 titles. Indexes are great tools and may help you overcome the deficiencies in library catalogues.

Using compiled family histories

Compiled family histories are derivative sources and their contents need to be treated as research leads, not as ‘truth’ or ‘fact’.

If you use the stories in compiled family histories in your own work, don’t forget to include an appropriate source citation.

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.