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Ancestry.com.au: Where do we start?

Brad Argent, Ancestry.com.au, 16 June 2011

Dr RICHARD REID: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Richard Reid. I am the senior curator on the Irish exhibition Not Just Ned that we have downstairs and this series of family history lectures is being run in conjunction with the Irish exhibition. I suppose I have to ask the question: Who has not been to see the Irish exhibition? I would hope during these series of lectures, if you are coming to the others, that you would take the opportunity to do it, because it’s very important if you are doing Irish family history - I assume that a lot of you are interested in that and will come back to some of the other lectures as well – as the exhibition will put the family in context of the nineteenth and twentieth century within Australia. It’s important for you in relation to your family history studies to get a sense of that wider history inside which the family is embedded. That is my bit of a plug for the exhibition. That’s not why you have come here this morning.

I am very pleased to welcome Brad Argent who is going to tell you a little bit about ancestry.com. I must admit it’s a bit of a mystery to me. I have examined it, and of course we have it available in the exhibition. I should mention that every Friday morning, HAGSOC, the Heraldry and Genealogical Society of Canberra, members are here to help people do their Irish family history. Do bear in mind, if you go to see the exhibition on a Friday morning you can get their help in looking at specific Irish problems, they are very skilled in doing that. Ancestry.com is available there. I have had a bit of a look at it myself and I am delighted to say that I have found ancestors on ancestry.com. I sort of knew where they were but it was delightful to see and I did find one record that I didn’t know about. I have a very unusual family in early nineteenth-century Ireland and an unusual name so it wasn’t all that difficult. It was tremendous to see it there. It’s my great pleasure to introduce Brad who is going to tell you this morning a little bit about how ancestry.com works.

BRAD ARGENT: Thank you, Richard. Good morning and thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to me rabbit on about our product. Can I get a show of hands of people who have used it? Good. What I am going to do is take you some of the record sets that we have and why they are good. I am also going to talk about a couple of things that are coming up which are interesting because it’s going to impact almost everybody in this room, with the exception of Prue but only because she falls outside the demographic. Then I am going to dive on to the site and show you a couple of things that I do when I am using the site to help me weave my way through the six billion records that are there. I am sure you have all had that problem where your ancestor never comes to the top. Occasionally they like to tell you that you should look at this American record before you look at this Australian record.

Birth, marriage and death records

One of the things I am most proud about is the birth, marriage and death records that we have. Anybody who has done any family history in Australia prior to launch of this collection would know that there wasn’t anywhere you could go to search for an ancestor across the country. You had to go to a particular registry and search their indexes. They varied in terms of what was available online, what wasn’t available online, how you searched them and how you actually accessed them. What we did is we decided to pull all those together. Now we have more than 15 million records from every state in Australia, and you can go to that one spot and search for that ancestor. This is really important because when we do family history, we start out with this preconceived idea that our ancestors came to a particular state, they married and died there and their family lived there forever because that’s where I am living now.

The reality is very different. Our ancestors liked to move about. Some of them, I am sure you all have these in your trees somewhere, just disappear. You see them being born and then they are not there any more. Where have they gone? There is no death record; there is no marriage record. Since we put this collection up, I have had an enormous number of people come to me and say, ‘I’ve found them.’ In fact I had one researcher who had 30 years experience, and they found somebody in their own tree in this collection. They were from Victoria and said I know they had gone to South Australia but I could never find them in Victoria or South Australia. They found them in Queensland in the Queensland death records. They still have no idea what they were doing in Queensland to die to Queensland, but they had never thought to look there. But because we put the records up, they just typed in the name and clicked search and there it was. Being able to do that is an enormous benefit. I always make the joke I did this because I was just too lazy to go and look at every single site, I just wanted the one spot to go and look for stuff.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, this is what it looks like. They are indexes and they are not birth certificates. This is an important thing: your birth certificates and marriage certificates and death certificates still sit with the registry. In New South Wales you can order a certificate or it’s much cheaper to order a transcript. A couple of interesting things about a transcript, apart from the fact that it’s cheaper and I think it’s about $16 to $18 versus $35 so it’s a significant difference. A transcript is not a legal document so you can’t use it in court, but it’s a transcript. When they are transcribing the record, what they do is they write down everything - and I mean everything. They will write down father’s name and then they will put in brackets next to it, ‘crossed out’. If you order a certificate, the certificate will come and the father’s name will be blank. Sometimes getting a transcript gives you more information than getting a certificate, and of course getting a transcript always gives you the benefit of somebody else actually reading it and actually understanding it. I still get certificates myself that I look at and I have no idea what that says. Transcripts are great.

If you have Victorian ancestors, you can get your certificates immediately online through the Victorian registry, and that is fantastic. It turns out to be quite cheap but then because you can get them immediately, you have a tendency to sit down and spend $50 or $60 in five minutes. But it’s so wonderful to be able to go straight back and get that material immediately.

What you get in these indexes is a name, this is a marriage one so you get the spouse’s name, you will get a date and a place. An important thing to remember with these particular indexes is they are the registration of events; they are not the actual occurrence of events. That’s really important with birth records because there can be a gap between when the birth occurs and when the birth is registered. Even today, the registry is inundated with registrations of birth at the start of the year for all these children that are four and five years old who want to go to school. So it still happens. You certainly get that historically.

If this Batholomew T Bradman that I am pointing out here, everything else is the same but you think he was born in 1899, that’s probably the guy you are after, it’s just maybe they took their time to get to the registry. You have to remember it was probably men who were doing this. You know what we are like, we don’t always get to things immediately.

Another important thing to remember particularly about birth records is to think a little laterally with the name because your name, and I have seen this happen, can change. They can be born one thing and by the time they get to the registry their name is something else. That is because the husband has decided on the way to the registry office they want to change the name. I know people who have only discovered that their birth name was different when they were getting married and needed to get a birth certificate. There can be some variation around that. Of course, people can also spend their lives being Dorothy but being known as Maud for some strange family reason. You will never find the Maud in the birth records but the Dorothy will be there. There are things to think about with that.

When you come to death records there is a whole heap of challenges around death records too, the usual joke being that they are never filled out by the deceased. So the quality of the information in them varies depending on who filled out the death certificate. There was a point in Australia’s history where it was the responsibility of the person on whose property the deceased passed away to fill out the death certificate. If you have an ancestor like I have who was working in a mine in Newcastle at the start of the twentieth century and he died a long way from his family, the people who filled out the death certificates were his work mates so they only put on the death certificate the information that they knew. The thing I always see on these things that gets confused is the parents of the diseased. You can sometimes find that the mother is right but the father isn’t their father, it’s their father-in-law. There can be some confusion around exactly who they are, so think a little bit laterally about that.

My preference is to always go with marriage records because usually they are all adults involved - not always but usually - most of the time it’s a happy occasion and there’s usually a level of officiation around the process, some kind of religious service involved, that is kind of putting pressure on people to be accurate with the information that they are giving. We are blessed in Australia because our marriage records are fantastic. If you have a marriage certificate from the UK, you will no doubt be a little bit disappointed with the lack of information in them. Ours are fantastic.

I have this hierarchy where I go: marriage records first, then birth records and then death records in terms of preference about what I get. You get so much from a marriage record that sometimes the birth records are not absolutely necessary to get you back to that next branch.

UK birth, marriage and death indexes

But it’s not just Australian records on the site. We have, as many of you are probably aware, the UK birth, marriage and death indexes that go from 1837 to 2005 that are now fully indexed. It’s much easier to search than it was previously, and of course you can order a certificate directly from the site. I am obliged about my marketing people to tell you that, and now I am going to take my ancestry hat off and tell you it’s very expensive. It’s much cheaper to go directly to the GRO, which is the registry in the UK, and order the certificate. So get your necessary information that you need to order the certificate from ancestry.com and then go to the GRO or go to your family history society and ask them to order it for you. I think it ends up costing around A$50 to get a certificate from Ancestry. Keep in mind if you do that and I ordered one and it was in my email in six days which is fantastic, but I paid for it. I paid a premium for the electronic delivery. For that price I could have two certificates just by going through the family history society, and quite possibly three by going to the GRO. It’s a service; it’s there.

QUESTION: What is GRO?

BRAD ARGENT: It’s the Government Registry Office or general registry office. If you want me to clarify anything as we go, just throw something at me and ask a question.

They are fantastic records but they are not the only thing that you should look at. There is a whole heap of things. You have this whole process of civil registration which didn’t start in Australia until about the 1850s - it varied from state to state - and in the UK it’s 1837. This civil registration is the government getting involved and telling people they had to register these events, because prior to that it’s all parish church records.

Cemeteries index

We have a cemeteries index with about half a million records in there. One of my goals is to get as many of these cemetery records together as I can, again because people have this habit of not dying where they are supposed to die. I don’t like loose ends so I like to have the death recorded. I am getting these records and am slowly building up this database of Australian cemetery records. They can be wonderful, because you can get things like monumental inscriptions. That is what people have written on a tombstone, and sometimes that can tell you much more than you will ever get from a death certificate.

Gretna Green marriage records

One of the more interesting birth, marriage and death collections is Gretna Green marriage records. If I say ‘Gretna Green’, does it mean anything to anybody? Yes, I am sure it does. It is laughingly called the Las Vegas of England. This is what the records look like, so they are not the easiest record to read. Gretna Green was a place on the border between England and Scotland where you didn’t really need a whole heap of documentation to get married. People would often go there and get married if they couldn’t, for a variety of reasons, get married in their own parish or their own country. It’s ancillary records like this that will help you when you can’t find a marriage record in the traditional records.

One thing I always try to point out is just because you can’t find a record for it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I will give you a good example of that. Seeing as I am in the nation’s capital, I was doing the family history of our Prime Minister. Her grandfather and grandmother, I couldn’t find a marriage record for them anywhere and I looked really hard for this record. What looks like happened was she married this Percy Gillard and he went to war and died during the First World War. I think after he died she took up with his brother. I couldn’t find a marriage record and it’s quite possible they didn’t actually marry because they weren’t allowed to marry. But because I couldn’t find the record doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. You know what it’s like: it could be fallen down the back of a filing cabinet somewhere; it might be indexed incorrectly; and it might be indexed in such a way we are never going to find it unless we stumble across it. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so just because it’s there doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Don’t get this shock if you go looking for your great grandparents’ marriage record and you can’t find it and you think ‘My God they were never married’. Maybe they weren’t but maybe they were and it just doesn’t appear in the records. It might be in one of these ancillary record sets.

Gretna Green is quite a small collection, about 4,000 or 5,000 records. The likelihood of you finding an ancestor in there is small but, unless you look, you are never going to know so don’t rule it out. If you meet these road blocks in the big collections, look at the smaller ones and. This is something I am going to reinforce a million times today - don’t just look online. Online family history is a gateway drug to history. It’s not the motherload: you have to get to your archives, to your family history societies. That’s where the good data is; that is where all the stories are told. Online stuff will build the skeleton. The meat on the bones will come from the archive. You need to think outside the square a little bit.

London parish records

The record set of London parish records was a huge boon and it certainly was for me as some of my ancestors came from London. Again, this is the stuff that goes back before civil registration. 1538 is way back. At the 1538 end of the spectrum there is not a lot of people, and I think some of those records are in Latin. But as you move further forward in that, and these records here are from the 1720s, you do get more and more people.

I always tell this story about this particular record set. I was giving a talk at a family history conference the weekend we launched this material. There was a woman there who had been over to London and looked at these parish registers herself. She had paid three professional genealogists in a period of 20 years to go and look at these records to find her ancestor. After digitising and indexing them, she sat down with me and in 90 seconds we had found that person she was looking for simply because we had gone through this process of digitising and indexing. He was sitting down here at the bottom of the page, really quite obvious when you saw it. But we have all done that thing where we look at a record set 100 times and we can’t see it. And somebody just walks in, looks over our shoulder and goes ‘There it is’. It was one of those moments. I said to her it was worth the million pounds then, wasn’t it, just so you could find that ancestor. It’s moments like that that do make it worth while.

You probably can’t make this out, but there is an Australian connection to this particular collection and I don’t know if that makes it any better. This says ‘Arthur, son of Jacob and Elizabeth Philips’, and it’s Arthur Philips’ baptismal record. The beauty of this is that it also has his birth date in there as well as baptismal date and has his parents in there. That is 1727 or 28. By getting these kinds of records and going into parish records, you can jump back so far so quickly. If you have one of those families that didn’t move, they will be in there.

One thing I do find with these records is families like to do group baptisms so it’s quite often you will see two or three children being baptised at the same time. I was looking in these records about eight weeks ago for somebody, again I was at a family history conference, and this woman came up to me and said, ‘I am looking for the son of John Smith from London.’ It’s one of those things that you dread when someone asks you that kind of a question, but we found him which amazed me, because I thought I am never going to do this. We found him in the records because it was John Smith and she said he was a blacksmith from this area. Because that was recorded in the record, we were able to find the information, and she found a sister that she was not aware of who was baptised on the same day. I would have thought that would have been impossible to do. But the beauty of having everything digitised and having these indexes that you can search made the process that much simpler. It took us about 15 minutes of weaving our way through the records because there is a couple of John Smiths in London but we got there. To me one of the huge boons of the Internet is that it enables us to do this. Finally we have a productive use for the Internet.

Passenger lists

Passenger lists are really important because we are a nation of immigrants: 98 per cent of us came from somewhere else in the last 223 years. What I have done with the ancestry site here in Australia, much as we did with the birth, marriage and death records, is I have gone around and got all the passenger lists - or as many of them as I can get - I am starting to throw them up together. We all get to that point in our family tree where there are no more people in Australia and they have come from somewhere. The struggle is: where did they come from?

If you are very fortunate and you have an assisted immigrant in your ancestry, the records are fantastic. They are just wonderful because they are so rich. The assisted immigration records for New South Wales are fantastic and a similar set for Victoria. There are things like immigration deposit journals, which tell you who assisted the immigrant to come out. It will say who they know in a colony, which can always be an insight into ‘I didn’t know that family was here as well’. It can sometimes answer the question as to why. Richard and I were talking about this earlier, one of the things that always amazes me: Why Australia and why then? Why did we end up here and not in America or in Canada? Why this end of the world’ And why this hemisphere?

Immigration records

The immigration records are part of the key to answering that question. What you will get in an immigration record typically - and they do vary widely – is you will get a name; an estimated birth year, usually not always; arrival date; arrival port; departure port; ship name; and sometimes a nationality, which is good. But there are issues with the immigration records.

QUESTION: Is there a reason why you don’t have records from South Australia there?

BRAD ARGENT: The particular question was about South Australia but I will get to why we don’t have other states more broadly. We don’t have a lot of records from South Australia full stop. South Australia represents a challenge. Anybody who has done research in South Australia would probably agree with that.

QUESTION: Can I just say that I did get information from the Maritime Museum.

BRAD ARGENT: There are good records for South Australia - I wouldn’t say they are great but there are good records for South Australia. This goes back to the point I was saying before, you have to think outside the box. We don’t have all the answers. We have a lot of them but we certainly don’t have all of them. If you can’t find it here, there is a million other places that you can look for information. I do go into that. At the end of this I have a slide that lists a whole lot of other websites to look at.

South Australia is challenging, and it’s not like we haven’t asked - and asked repeatedly - but they are different. I will be diplomatic and leave it at that. I am a very patient man so I will be chipping away at that iceberg with my toothpick for some time.

QUESTION: What about Queensland?

BRAD ARGENT: We have Queensland records from 1848 to 1912.

(inaudible question) We don’t have those records yet. I have been in discussion with Queensland on and off for four years. At the moment it’s off, but it could be on again tomorrow.

Getting access to these records is a very challenging exercise. When you walk into an archive and you say, ‘I would like to get access to your records, digitise them, index them and put them up on a website and make money from it,’ they have 50,000 questions to which I have the answer to about four of them. There are huge issues around what does that mean in terms of access. Do they have the right to do that? Questions around copyright, questions around publishing and questions around privacy that we have to go into. Some archives and some government bodies have one mindset around that; others have different mindsets around that. They have a whole heap of sensitivities they need to work with as well, and then it comes down to priority. For an archive like Queensland, the priority is cataloguing, making sure they know what they have is a huge priority, as you can imagine, when you have 70 kilometres of shelving you probably want to know what’s on it because it makes it much easier to find the stuff. So things like digitizing, indexing and working with third parties to do that probably get bumped down on the priority list, which is frustrating for me and ultimately frustrating for those of us who want to use the material. But we work with them. It took us two and a half years to get our first agreement in Australia, and I had to change the law in New South Wales to do that. That gives you some insight into the kind of input that goes into it.

What material we have is an index. It’s very much looking like this but there aren’t any images attached to it, because we take the position that the images in the film are a creative work that is owned by the archive in the broadest sense of the word. And without prejudice that is essentially our position.

Dr RICHARD REID: With something like New South Wales where there are two separate shipping lists, the agent’s list and the board lists, do you then get both?

BRAD ARGENT: You do. This is one of the struggles that we are coming to terms with. We bundle stuff and say it’s an immigration record or it’s a passenger record, and in the New South Wales one there are eight or nine series of records in that set. We are actually working with the archive now so that we can delineate which series of records it came from, because that’s really important. You want to know exactly what the originating agency was for a particular record, because there could be 100 other records that support it that just aren’t online. We are getting to that.

(inaudible question) That star system is how close a match it is to the criteria that you put in the search. I am going to go through that. I am going to dive into the site and do a bit of searching to show you what that looks like.

This is an immigration record. This is an interesting record set because it is an unassisted immigration record, which is the vast bulk of people coming into Australia particularly in the later half of the nineteenth century. The interesting thing is most of our seamen here actually get reasonably well written up. If you have a sailor or a maritime person in your ancestry, the records are wonderful. You can see them popping in and out of various ports around Australia many times.

What you get here, and again this is something of an anomaly, is a name, this looks like an age of children, this might be a relationship to people. Here is an address where they are going in Sydney, which is absolutely wonderful. Most of the time it will be Mr Smith and family. Is it your Mr Smith? Who knows. But there are other things that you can do if you think that’s yours. For example, this has happened a number of times: This ship is called Matildaise. If it was just Mr Smith and family, and it just so happened that your ancestor lived on a property called Matildaise, there is a strong possible connection between that. You do sometimes find that things that are important to them in terms of their process of coming to the country get some kind of connection with the family moving down, whether it’s a surname or a middle name that is passed on or whether the ship name is brought into the family story at some point. There are other things. I picked this record in particular because there there are stowaways. I have yet to find any comprehensive research on the stowaways that came to Australia. As I am randomly browsing through the record sets – and indeed that is how I found these - I am putting them to one side and saying they are stowaways on here. We don’t treat them any differently, so they are actually listed as passengers. I have yet to find anybody who has found a stowaway ancestor, but here’s five. There is more information on them than you will get on some legitimate passengers: their name, their age and their occupation. So there is good information in there.

Convict records

I have to talk about convicts because they are so important - important to certainly the building of Australia in the very early days. They probably don’t play as big a role as our free settlers or our assisted immigrants play in terms of building and expanding the nation, but these were the poor souls who, for whatever reason, were sent out here. There are a couple of myths about convicts, and they are quite hotly debated. I think the vast bulk of them were habitual or opportunistic criminals that finally got caught and sent here. I think the whole myth about them having to steal to put bread on the table and being hard done by - I am sure that happened on occasion but the vast bulk of them certainly appear to be recidivist criminals who just finally got caught, and for some of them they were caught more than once.

They weren’t violent criminals, and that’s the big thing. I think only two per cent of convicts were convicted of violent crimes because of course any violent crime you got hung. It was the period of the bloody code where you steal a handkerchief and you get sentenced to death and it gets converted to transportation for life. We have an enormous amount of convict records on the site, too many to go into. It is probably the most comprehensive set of Australian convict records that you will find anywhere. We did these records a little while ago, the certificates of freedom. Not every convict obviously got one of these, because some of them got sentenced for life and life is what they served. But they are a great record set.

They are worth looking at just for the general remarks section down here [slide shown]. I am going to try to read it. It’s bit of a physical description of this Peter McCabe. He’s a small hairy - you can read it better than I can - and it talks about him being moved somewhere and serving some time somewhere else. It’s a wonderful chunk of information about this convict here. If you have a convict, you are blessed with an enormous amount of documentation. If you have a free setter, you can see them coming and you might see them dying - and that might be about it. There is way too much to go into but the certificates of freedom are a wonderful collection.

QUESTION: Do you have to pay for those?

BRAD ARGENT: Most of the records on ancestry you have to purchase, although you can get access to ancestry.com downstairs in the Irish exhibition for the duration of the exhibition. So it is well worth getting in there and have a look. I think the National Library has ancestry.com so you can go and use that for free. I think there is a number of other places around here that have free access, so you can get access to it for free. It’s not expensive - but of course I am going to say that. I think it’s good value for money, but then of course I am going to say that too. You can make up your own mind.

There are other things here like registers of conditional and absolute pardons - again a wealth of information in that kind of convict material. We are currently working on the convict ship surgeons’ journals, which are fascinating accounts of actually what transpired on the convict journeys and it talks about the convicts who got sick - wonderful stuff. Some of this they write the description about this illness on this convict that might go for one or two pages, and then there will be another entry for convict so and so died, and that’s it. There doesn’t seem to be any real consistency in those records. But they are coming and they are good records as well.

We are also working on the convict indents which, I am sure if you have a convict, you have seen before.

QUESTION: Are those records available in archives (inaudible) descriptions of smallpox on the boat?

BRAD ARGENT: From memory with relation to the convicts in particular, the convict ships surgeons journals are part of the ADM, which is the admiralty 101 record series, from the national archive. They have been filmed by the National Library and they are part of what’s called AJCP or the Australian Joint Copying Project so there is film for that. You will find that film at the National Library. I think it’s at the relevant state libraries as well. It’s wonderful material. If you haven’t had a look at what is in that, take some time and have a look and just browse through the catalogues. There is a wealth of stuff in there. Again, that is the kind of stuff you need to flesh out the story. It’s one thing to know they existed; it’s another thing entirely to know who they were.

Electoral rolls

Electoral rolls are really important for us as Australians, because we don’t have many surviving census records - we have 1828 and we have both copies of that on Ancestry. I say ‘both’ because there were two that were produced and it looks like they sent the draft copy back to England and kept the original copy here, and in fact I think the original copy was actually updated after the copy that was sent to England. So we have both copies that you can do compare and contrast. If you want a definitive source on the 1828 census, there is a book and CD entitled 1828 census of New South Wales published by Mal Sainty and Keith Johnson that is very well getting access to. I am sure they have a copy the family history society and at the library. It’s the definitive work and it’s actually the work I use when I am doing research, and then I dive back into the ancestry images. We have the 1828.

Then we have the 1841 heads of household, and then we have some partial records for New South Wales for 1881 and 1891. Then our next surviving census happens in 1961, so there is this huge gap. And of course the 1961 census won’t be available until 2060, which is a little bit outside of my timeframe.

So electoral rolls seem to me to be the next sort of resource to look at. We have compulsory registration and then we have compulsory voting so they are an adult census, if you like. There is a great range of dates there, but you will notice that South Australia is not included in that. The story behind that is these records came from the filming of the electoral rolls that was done by the National Library. When they filmed them, they asked South Australia to provide their records, they would film them and they would give them back copies of the film, and South Australia said no thank you. So they are not in there. If anybody has a copy of those, please come and see me afterwards.

As you can see, there is great information in an electoral roll. I am sure you have all seen them at some point. They covered off everybody. There is the big man himself as a student. They can be really good for putting somebody somewhere at a place at a point in time. I use them extensively when I am trying to search back for someone. When I am doing a piece of research on a famous person, for example, I will use the electoral rolls to try to work out when they might have got married. Sometimes you can see that, because here they are living at home; the next electoral roll they are not living at home and they are living with another person who has the same surname so that gives me given names for their spouse. You can use them and you can use them to reverse engineer that process and get some data out of it.

What is interesting about these, and I alluded to it at the start of my talk, is they are going up to 1980 so that means most of you will be in the records. I wonder how you are going to feel about that. Somebody told me the definition of getting old was actually appearing in the ancestry database. I stopped at 1980 for no other reason than it just felt wrong to go any more recent than that. It does a number of things: it covers off the referendum that we had in the 1960s; and it also covers off the change to the voting age in 1975. They are particularly wonderful records for people who are getting started. I don’t think I will do any further than 1980. We released a whole heap of New Zealand records earlier this year, and those electoral rolls go up to 1981 and I think that is soon enough. Even though under law we could go right up to 2008, I don’t think we need to - just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

I asked a number of people about doing that and how they felt about us putting that information up there, just trying to get some feedback. If you were previously married, there might be an electoral roll record with you and your previous spouse living at the same address. If that marriage didn’t work out and you had another marriage and your life moved on, and your family didn’t know about that marriage, there is a possibility they could find that out. That was the case I put forward when I was talking to people, that that might be the worst case scenario that came out of this. They didn’t care; they said people can get access to marriage records. They were more worried about the openness of marriage records more broadly than they were about what was on the electoral rolls. It’s going to be an enormous boon for those people who want to get started, particularly for those who decide that they want to do their family history once their parents are dead. It’s probably a little late to get started. You know what it’s like: you always start too late when you do family history.

Coming up on Ancestry.com

What do we have that’s coming up? We do have more passenger lists. We have Western Australia and we have Tasmania. Western Australia is very important because it has some 2.9 million people coming into Australia in a period from 1873 to 1932 - so not a huge chunk of time but an enormous number of people. And of course they came in there and then they went everywhere. So if you can’t find your ancestor coming in to Victoria or to New South Wales, think about them coming in to Western Australia.

Tasmania is one of those places that been around for a long time. It was really our second colony. About 1810 we started having information about Tasmania and the Tasmanian records actually go up to 1970. They will be up with images. Just between you and me, we are launching those on 14 July. In total, that brings our immigration collection up to about 14.6 million people coming into Australia.

Colonial Secretary’s papers

We are doing the convict indents, as I said. We are doing the colonial secretaries papers. Can I have a show of hands of people who have looked at the colonial secretaries papers? It’s a wonderful record set. A fantastic calendar has been done by New South Wales state records. What we have done is we have taken that calendar and we have married it up to the microform images. So now you can search the calendar and then click on it to see the image. That collection will be a free collection for everybody. The reason we did that is because they are the fundamental set of records that really document the building of Australia. It didn’t feel right to put those records behind a paid wall.

It’s a wonderful resource for kids who are doing research on early Australia to be able to get in there and see the letter that William Bligh sent asking for his personal effects to be returned, to get in there and get a real sense of the voice of Australia as it was growing up. I think you have an obligation to make that stuff accessible. So we worked in partnership with New South Wales State Records to make that happen. It’s going to available by Australia Day next year - it may be available before then.

We are getting more electoral rolls I spoke of; we are getting more UK parish records and of course more Irish material. There is a wealth of Irish material on the site which you can have a look at if you go down to the exhibition. We have a whole heap of Irish Catholic parish records that we have recently indexed.

There are also records of the Famine - I these are fascinating records – and the letters that are petitioned. You might not find your ancestor in those records, but it will give you a real sense, particularly if you have Irish ancestors who came here during that period, of what it was like for them and perhaps what the motivations were for them to leave.

Free family history websites

I love doing family history on the cheap. We are blessed with some great free sites.

I have put down here a couple that I use on a daily basis. The first one is the Australian Cemeteries index by Reg McDough http://austcemindex.com/ who travels around the country photographing and indexing cemeteries. So if you go to this site, chances are there will not only be an index but a digital photo of the headstone, which is absolutely fantastic. There is no way you are going to be able to make it to every cemetery in Australia.

Ryerson index (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nswsdps/dpsindex.htm) - who hasn’t used Ryson? You have to go to the Ryson index and have a look. There are about three million death records, and they are from the death notices in a whole heap of Australian papers. I go in and find the death notice, and then I pop down to the State Library and go through the microfilm reels of the newspaper and read the death notice. Death notices are wonderful because they will often mention people in the death notice who you have never heard of. It will usually give you a full account of who the offspring were of the deceased. It might mention a spouse that you are not aware of. It can give you details of where the funeral was and perhaps where the burial was, which can then drive you on to a cemetery record.

Who hasn’t used Trove (trove.nla.gov.au)? Who is game enough to put their hand up and say they haven’t used it? I would have to say it is probably the world’s leading website for newspaper research. They have spent an enormous amount of money in providing us with a free digitised copy of a whole raft of newspapers that are really pertinent to Australia. There is nothing else I can say to you but go there and have a look, but block out two or three hours, because you get there and you will find a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald that your ancestor sent 100 years ago. You will find, as I did, that your great great grandparents divorced at the age of 63 and then you go and tell your grandmother that and she had absolutely no idea. The stuff you find in there is wonderful, but it is a time vampire. It is such a wonderful resource. I can’t praise it highly enough. Go home and do it now.

It’s based on OCR or optical character recognition where they have scanned it and converted all the text into words. So it’s kind of hit and miss. But the beauty of Trove is if you find a record that you are interested in, you can go in and update it and transcribe it. So you can correct any of the errors that the software might have picked up, which then has enormous benefits for anybody else. You can tag it as well, so you can put surnames in the tag field which then helps people when they are doing searching. It’s a wonderful interactive community-based project that I can’t do enough to support it. Out of all the sites on there, it’s the one if you haven’t been to it, go home and have a look.

Papers Past (http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast is the New Zealand version of that. Don’t discount New Zealand from your searching. There is a huge amount of interaction between Australia and New Zealand going back as early as the 1840s. If you have an ancestor who has just disappeared, have a look in New Zealand. Often if they came here for something like a gold rush and they couldn’t make it here, they hopped on the boat over to try their luck in New Zealand. Don’t discount that. There was a huge amount of traffic to and fro. Papers Past is a good way of going in and having a look at who is in there. I actually used it quite extensively when I was doing Russell Crowe’s ancestry. He has one of those ancestries you just die for. In every branch of his tree someone was from a different country: Germany, Italy, South Africa, Maori connections, English connections, Canadian connections and connections with one of the Italian revolutions. Every branch I shook strange fruit fell out. It was absolutely wonderful, which probably answers a whole heap of other questions about Russell Crowe.

Of course the National Archive - again it’s a must do; you have to look at that site. Whenever I am doing research I always do a search there as well. These are the sites that I use every time I am looking for somebody. Of course I use Ancestry.com but you have to think outside that box as well. Then there are your state-based archives and registries. Your family history societies are really important. If you can trace an ancestor back to a particular spot, chances are there is going to be some record for them sitting on a shelf in a family history society somewhere. It could be somebody else has already done the family history but they did it 30 years ago and it’s sitting in a book on a shelf. It could be an employment record that is sitting in the Lithgow family history society because they worked at an arms factory up there. You just don’t know these things, so you have to think: they came from this area, where is the local history or family history group for that? If you can’t find them on the web, ring up the local library and ask the question. The Internet, as I said, is the starting place; it’s not the start and the end.

I am going to open it up to questions. But while I do that I thought I would show you some of the stuff on the site. This is my Ancestry subscription. When I log in, this is the page that I get. I don’t spend a lot of time on that. Over here you can see I have some quick links for me to use. But the first thing is I go in and search all records. You can see the drop-down box gives me an option of filtering out these categories a bit and I also always have the advanced search open. It gives me a bit more control over what I do. If you want to filter out all that US rubbish that they try to give you, you make sure your collection priority is Australian, so that if you tick this box, it will only show you records that are Australian. There are risks associated with that, because you could have an ancestor who is Australian but served in the First World War and enrolled in America and if you have that box ticked you are never going to find them. There are two ways of searching: you can start and put in everything you know and click ‘search’ and you get no results; or you can put in just a name and click search, and you get three million results. Somewhere between the two is a happy medium. I usually start out by putting in a minimum of information - a name, a place and a date. If you don’t have those three things, it’s going to be a struggle to find what you are after. Then I might add more information to try to filter it down.

A couple of the things that you can do on Ancestry which are really interesting – I am going to do a surname search. ‘Argent’ is quite an uncommon name. I can do things like put a question mark in there ‘Arg?nt’ which is really interesting in with a vowel like E because it can be read as O or A or I, depending on the quality of the person who is actually writing the original record. So by putting a question mark in there, it will give me every one of them.

QUESTION: If I put a question mark where the G was, would it also take it out …

BRAD ARGENT: It wouldn’t necessarily give you the result you wanted. There is probably a better way of doing that. You can see here it’s given me a whole heap of Argents with an E. It comes in handy if you are doing something like Smith and Smyth. Of course it is only bringing up Argents, as it would normally do. Let me give you another example.

QUESTION: Can I replace more than one letter with a question mark?

BRAD ARGENT: It’s only one letter. If you wanted to do more, you can do this and put an asterisk in - you can put that asterisk anywhere at the start or at the end. You need three characters eg arg* or *gent. The more characters that you have, the narrower your result would be. For example, I wouldn’t suggest you put *son because you will get a huge number.

You can see I am getting some Argents but the first thing that came up was that. That is because it sorted the results alphabetically. If I wanted to thin those down a bit I could put in a date. Thomas argument. I find it rather difficult to believe his surname was argument. This comes in handy when you are looking for variations on a theme.

Then I can go and narrow it down by category here. You can see how the star system is coming into play. That is also based on the fact that all I have asked it to search for is three characters, to limit the record search to Australia, which has about 100 million records in it, and it’s given me 25,000 results. If I want to slim it down a bit more, I can put in William. If I want to make it a bit more, I can restrict it to ‘exact’. Again, if you go with the default settings, it uses a kind of soundex so it will give you a variety of different things and it will use things that might be William but transcribed wrongly. If I restrict it to exact, it will only give me exact instances of William. It will give me William Arthur; it will give me Arthur William; and it will give me William; and as you see it has already knocked it down to 4000.

I know I am looking for William Argent. If I restrict that down to exact as well, it goes from 4000 down to 156. Now I am looking particularly for an immigration record - sadly he wasn’t a convict. But he’s not there - I know what record set he’s in and why hasn’t he coming up in these records? I am going to change that back to default and see what happens. I know he came here because I used the old school method of finding him by going through reels and reels of immigration microfiche records.

Is he an assisted passenger? I know he is, and in fact I know that that’s him. He was William Argent, but his actual name was Arthur William Argent. If you see down here, that’s been corrected because it isn’t Arthur A, it’s actually Arthur W, and I made that correction. So if I went in and searched for Arthur W now, that record would come up because I have made an amendment to that because the transcription was wrong. I am going to try to view this record. That clearly says ‘Arthur A’ but I know that he was ‘Arthur William’. (question inaudible). I did too. I am going to go in and correct it and I can put in here an explanation. You can see there are now two. The first one is me. I have to accept the mea culpa for that.

(question inaudible)

BRAD ARGENT: Where you see that little pencil it means somebody has contributed to that record. We get an enormous number of user contributions - in the tens of thousands per week globally. The spin on that is that our records are wonderfully interactive and people like to update them. It is also a comment on the transcribing and indexing process. What you have to remember is indexes are finding aids; they are not transcriptions. They are designed to drive you to the original record.

If you can find your ancestor but the surname is not spelt 100 per cent correct – it is not such an issue if you can find your ancestor. We constantly try to drive up quality, but of course an increase in quality can lead to an increase in cost. I can give you 100 per cent accurate transcriptions of records but I would have to stick a zero on the end of your subscription cost, and I don’t think anybody who want to pay that. It is trying to find a balance between that. Getting people to update their records like this is one way we can improve on the quality of the indexing.

QUESTION: What is the difference between version of Ancestry you use in a library to the version of Ancestry that you subscribe to from home?

BRAD ARGENT: Not a lot is the short answer to that. There are some things that you won’t get but they are very obscure US-based collections that because of some legacy licensing issues we can’t put on the library edition. In terms of records there is no material difference.

What you will notice though is that you can’t get access to family trees. This is where the value really is, searching the family trees and leveraging somebody else’s research. There is a really important point about that. Who has used the family trees stuff and taken somebody else’s research? You have to be really careful. Make sure that the information that you are getting is sourced - ideally there has to be two sources for it. It’s a great time saver but it does not take away the obligation that you have for actually going and doing research. I always say: use someone else’s family tree as a road map that might point you in the right direction, but you still have to go on the journey.

QUESTION: Can I correct on Ancestry a situation where someone has put my family tree onto the wrong ancestors?

BRAD ARGENT: You can contact the owner.

QUESTION: What if they don’t get back to you.

BRAD ARGENT: This is a real struggle. You have an obligation when you put your information up and you are prepared to share it with the world, I think you have an obligation to interact with the world. If somebody comes along and corrects you, indeed I have seen people almost come to blows over differences. I must tell you a funny story: I got a call from a guy who rang me and said, ‘I am not dead but there’s a record on your site that says I am dead. We need to fix it.’ It took us a while. Again he had tried to contact the person but couldn’t get through and didn’t get a response. We were able to intervene for him and contact the person directly, and he updated the record eventually. It takes a little while but it does happen. It can work and sometimes it takes persistence.

One of the ways that you can counter it is to put your version up. You have to be really careful when you are sharing information like a family tree on the Internet, and I will show you why. This is my family tree. It won’t show information on living people. By default it hides that information. It will show information on deceased people so think about that when you are doing that. If you are putting up a family tree and it includes the death of somebody who might have died quite young and quite tragically, even if it was 20 or 30 years ago, is it absolutely necessary for you to publish that bit of information because it might cause distress to somebody else?

You have to think about the same thing when you put photos up. Some communities have an issue with images of the dead being represented. So think about that. Also think about the fact that, when you put information up there and you make it publicly available, people might use it for purposes that you might not be comfortable with. They might take your information and misrepresent it. I would always suggest that, when you put information up, share only the information that you are comfortable sharing. If someone wants more, they can contact you, and then you make a decision about what it is you are prepared to share and what you are not prepared to share.

QUESTION: Ancestry.com.au …

BRAD ARGENT: You think about the different websites essentially as doorways all into the same room. The difference being the subscription you pay for determines the list of cocktails that you can order from. If you pay entry level into Australia, you get the basic Australian stuff and the basic UK stuff. You get enough information to get your census records, your birth, marriage and death records in the UK, you get Australian vitals, immigration records and convict records. Then there is a middle package which gives you more Australian stuff like gaol records and inquest records and the parish records from the UK, so it will help you get past that 1837 barrier. And then you have world.

My advice to people is take out the very basic entry level subscription. If you find you are getting denied access to certain records and it’s just one or two, make a note of them and then pop down to the library and get the records there. If you find that ‘Oh my God, my family were in London for 300 years,’ maybe it makes sense to spend the extra money and get access to the London parish records. It’s only an extra $50 a year. That is a couple of birth certificates and getting some records from the national archives. It’s a trade-off.

Then if you find yourself really needing to get access to US records, again if it’s only one or two, just get it from the library. If you find ‘there’s a whole branch of the family in Canada that I never knew existed,’ maybe it makes sense to upgrade to the world package. I would stay with the very basic package to start with and then make a really considered decision about whether I need to bump up to the next level.

QUESTION: What are the countries in the world package?

BRAD ARGENT: America, Canada, Ireland, Scotland - though I would have to say Scotland’s People is probably better for that at the moment - England, Wales, Norway, Sweden, France, Germany, Italy and a whole heap of Chinese records there as well. (inaudible). Only this last week I have been looking at where do we go next, what is important next for Australia? I don’t know - what country is next on the list?

QUESTION: If you find Swedish records, are they all in Swedish?

BRAD ARGENT: Yes, they are all in Swedish - the searching is in English but the records are not in English and then you need to get translation of those records. But there are great places to get that. When I recommend people go to is a migration service, because a lot of migration services have in-house translators who can translate records for you, or churches or community groups and that sort of stuff.

QUESTION: If we are looking for ancestors in Scotland where do we go to?

BRAD ARGENT: ScotlandsPeople (http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/) We have been trying for years and years to get material from Scotland, which is why we have indexed all the census records, but again they won’t come to the party. If you have a lot of Scottish ancestors, I would suggest Scotland’s People is the place to go. We have to wrap it up. Thanks very much for your time.

Dr RICHARD REID: A couple of things before we finish and before I thank Brad. On 31 July and 3 August there is a two-day course being run by HAGSOG. The first day on 31 July is a focus on Australian records and the second day on 7 August is a focus on overseas records as well as Ancestry. The lady was asking about matrons diaries on ships - I will talking about that on that first day, stuff relating to voyages and a whole range of things, particularly about the Irish but nonetheless it covers general stuff as well.

The second thing to acknowledge in what Brad was telling you about the State Records of New South Wales is in regard to the indexes to the Colonial Secretaries material. Yes, up until 1823, the archives did that but from 1823 on was done by a genealogist Joan Reece, who spent a good part of her life doing records from 1823 right through the rest of the century. So genealogists do a lot of very valuable things. Are you putting the whole index up?

BRAD ARGENT: We are putting the whole calendar that is currently up on the State Records.

Dr RICHARD REID: Most of that calendar is actually done by Joan, not by the State Records themselves.

BRAD ARGENT: It’s one of the best I have ever seen.

Dr RICHARD REID: It’s an extraordinary record. It remains for me to thank Brad for giving up his time and coming here today to tell you about Ancestry.com. I was curious to sit and see what I might learn from it. I have learnt from it - thank you Brad for that. I am going to go back and do a little bit of searches for nothing, because it’s available in the National Museum up until the end of June in the Not Just Ned Irish exhibition. Make sure you go and see the Irish exhibition - you can use it for free there and get a lot else besides. Thank you, Brad, for that. It’s a pleasure. [applause]

Resources mentioned

Ancestry.com http://www.ancestry.com.au/

State Records http://www.records.nsw.gov.au/

Australian Cemeteries Index http://austcemindex.com/

Ryerson Index http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nswsdps/dpsindex.htm

Trove http://trove.nla.gov.au

Papers Past (New Zealand) http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast

ScotlandsPeople http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/

Date published: 11 July 2011