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.

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.


Fix those missing source citations

It’s important to set aside time to update your family tree by adding source citations to information that does not have any.

If you have been researching for a long time or have not been conscientious about adding sources as you go, then you may have a lot of work to catch up on. To make this seemingly endless task achievable, you should break it into smaller chunks – perhaps one hour a week or fortnight. Don’t forget to measure your progress – seeing that number of missing source citations dropping is motivation to keep at it!

If you use family history software, you should be able to find a feature that tells you which information in your tree currently has no source citations attached. In Legacy, for example, under the Search tab select Find, then select Missing Sources. You can search for people who have no sources, or are missing source citations on one or more items. You can also narrow your search for people who are missing specific types of source citations, such as sources for the death date and place. Click on Create List to generate a list. You can work through the list from this interface, or click the Options button then select Print. That gives you the option of saving the list as a PDF or as a CSV file. I prefer the CSV format because I can open it in Excel and mark them off as I complete the citations.

If your tree is online with Ancestry, FamilySearch or another site, you will need to impose your own structure to work through your tree systematically adding source citations. One way to make it manageable might be to work on one surname at a time, starting from yourself and working backwards in time.

Of course not all sources are equal in quality and there is also the question of how many sources you need to cite, but those are issues for discussion at another time. One source is better than none, two independent sources are better, and if you find more then it’s time to celebrate.

Choose a method works for you and get stuck into it. The benefits are worth it!


Four good reasons to cite your sources – Part 2

Reason No. 3. To acknowledge the work of others

If we use the work or ideas of another person in our family history research then we need to acknowledge their work, and source citations are a good way to do that.

If you present the work or ideas of others in a way that suggests that it is your own work then you are committing plagiarism. Failing to acknowledge the work of others is not a big deal if you do not present the results of your research to others. However, you do need to cite your sources if you put your research online, or include it in a book, essay, thesis or journal article. A source citation is needed when you quote from another work; include ideas or the work of another researcher; or if you include data, images or media produced by someone else.

Just because someone has researched the same family as you, it does not always mean that you have to acknowledge their research. If you extract information from their research, then verify it using original or reliable derivative sources, then it is those sources that you cite, not their research. This is because the information is not their creative property. However, if they wrote a story about their family based on the information, then that story is their creative property and needs to be acknowledged with a source citation. In such cases, copyright may also apply and you may need to seek their permission to reproduce it.

Reason No. 4. To help you analyse the source

One of the most important and often overlooked reasons to cite your sources is that doing so helps you analyse the source, and this improves the quality of your research.

Writing a source citation forces you to examine the source more closely. You have to consider the nature of the source and why it was created. You have to identify who created the source and where it was created. You also have to identify if there is anyone with creative property rights – such as an author or a photographer. And, if it is an unpublished source, you also have to think carefully about the details required to help someone find the source for themselves.

All of the information gathered for the purpose of citing a source helps us to understand the information in the source and increases the likelihood that we will interpret the source and the information accurately.

[The image used here is believed to be in the Public Domain, but a citation won’t hurt: Harrison Fisher, Fair Americans, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911]