Searching Catalogues Effectively: National Archives of Australia

Rectangular building with horizontal stripes. In between the stripes are the windows.

State Library of Tasmania in Hobart. This photo is undated but it looks like it could have been taken when the building had just finished completion. Photo courtesy of State Library of Tasmania flickr collection.

While in Hobart I have been spending a lot of time in the ‘History Room’ at the State Library. This is where researchers can retrieve items from the state and national archives that are held in Hobart. In my book I want to include stories of soldiers from each state in Australia and also look at their pre-war experiences, hence my Tasmanian research.

As usual I am encountering the problem of records that were never kept at the time or are difficult to find through existing catalogues. I have needed to delve deeply and creatively into various catalogues. I thought that many of you would have encountered similar problems researching your family history, trying to complete assignments etcetera, so I thought I would share a little of what I have learned.

Each archive and library has its own way of organising their catalogues, filing their material and explaining how to find items. Sometimes items or collections may not even be mentioned in electronic catalogues or they may be on card catalogues which have not been transferred onto a computer yet. Other items in the collection may never have been catalogued in the first place because of shortage of staff.

The catalogue on the website of the National Archives of Australia only describes about twenty percent of the items they hold. So how can you find out about the thousands of boxes of archival material that are not mentioned in the electronic catalogue? Continue reading

“Genealogists are becoming the new social historians” says professional historian

three women and one man standing in front of a table with flowers and two copies of Fractured Families standing up.

Lisa Murray (City of Sydney Historian), Jo Toohey (CEO of the Benevolent Society), Tanya Evans (author of Fractured Families) and Max Carrick (family historian mentioned in Fractured Families). Photo courtesy of the Benevolent Society.

“Australian history has been transformed by the contributions of family historians”, says Dr Tanya Evans, historian at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Her new book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, is the result of collaboration between Tanya Evans and some of the many family historians who have worked with the archives of Sydney’s oldest non-religious charity, The Benevolent Society.

“… genealogists are becoming the new social historians…”, remarks Evans in the prologue. She points to the painstaking research conducted by family historians which has revealed the lives of those of their forebears who were numbered among the poor and the outcast.  Fractured Families  is about those forgotten people of history and their descendants who cared enough to learn more about the difficult lives of their forebears.

The interest Evans has about the lives of poor people bubbles through the book as does her admiration of the work done by family historians. She sees great value in the work of family historians noting that, “… the more people who become involved in the endeavour, the richer and more democratic our knowledge will be.”

Cover of book

Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, by Tanya Evans (UNSW Press, 2015).

Fractured Families is an easy book to pick up and put down. Each chapter has a new set of stories about the lives of those who sought assistance from The Benevolent Society during the long nineteenth century and the wealthier people who contributed to the care of the impoverished. The narrative meanders around the events of an eclectic group of lives. It is effectively a series of cameos. Sometimes the reader can engage with the people of the past, at other times the information conveyed is too fragmentary for the reader to feel moved by their stories.

The impact of these stories may have been greater if the photos that are bunched onto photo pages in the middle of the book had instead been inserted at the relevant places in the text. When dealing with fragmentary history, photos are a rich historical source which convey the story more powerfully if there are not enough words in the archives. Fractured Families includes two disturbing photos of emaciated babies which would have made the telling of the cold statistics of starvation and infant mortality in Sydney more potent if they had accompanied the relevant text. Unfortunately the high cost of producing books with photos scattered through the text is a serious limit in the effective use of photographs in the telling of histories such as this one.

This book does not have literary pretensions – there are too many “as described in chapter X” or “these are explored in chapter X” for that. The language used is very accessible with the occasional use of words such as ‘gendered’ or ‘power relations’ and a political earnestness which reflect the author’s academic roots. As befitting someone with Tanya Evans experience as a historical consultant for popular television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? Evans has written a book that any general reader will find easy to read.

Continue reading

Ruminations on a Thing

Long grey plastic box with words "Special Spectroscopic Electrodes" on the lid

It was a container for knitting needles to me.

It is a Thing.

It just is.

You might have a Thing at your place. You have grown up with it. It is always there, part of your everyday life. So seen, so used that is has become invisible to you.

It is difficult to find a Thing if you don’t know you have it. A few months ago I discovered that my family had a Thing. It revealed an interesting aspect of family history. I’ll tell you the story of it because it may help you to find out if you have a Thing.

A few months ago I asked my mother about her life before having children for a post I wrote last year: ‘Glimpses of a Young Women in Laboratories 1959-1963‘. She was telling me about her work as a technical assistant in a laboratory working with spectroscopy.

“Do you remember the containers that I kept the knitting needles in,” she asked. I recalled the long pale grey containers with blue writing on them. “That is what the carbon rods we used for spectroscopy came in,” she said.

I was astonished. I had never really looked at the pale grey boxes containing the knitting needles. I was a keen knitter as a teenager and frequently used the knitting needles in these containers, but I had not once read the writing on the containers. I was surprised at this failing, yet I shouldn’t have been. It is well-known that the ordinary, everyday things or activities are so ubiquitous that they go unnoticed and unremarked. Continue reading

Family History – the Kernel of All History

My mother as a child with her family in a handmade boat -  country Victoria at the end of WWII.

My mother as a child with her family in the boat her father made – country Victoria at the end of WWII.

“The kernel of all history is family history.” I wrote that comment this morning in response to a thought-provoking post by Emeritus Professor David Carment about the importance of historians exploring and writing about their own family histories. The post picks up on a theme from a conference held in honour of highly regarded historian, Alan Atkinson.

Every one of us is part of a family. Hence all history in its essence is family history. Stumbling Through the Past is a history blog. It is also a family history blog. The blog header which I created when I started this blog back in August 2010 includes pictures of members of my family from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It reflects the fact that it was the way my family retold and researched our own history which attracted me to further study of history. Continue reading

My Mother the Computer Programmer

My mother did the traditional thing when she married in 1963. She left work to raise children. She did housework and in her spare time enjoyed embroidering. She even exhibited her embroidery. But underneath this conventional exterior my mother did things differently.

Mum decided to complete year twelve when I was a baby. Her mother-in-law approved of her studying.  “She was pleased to have a daughter in law that had a mind above housework”, recalled my mother. My grandmother had gone to university herself and worked in London and Paris in the 1920s. My mother appreciates the fact that her mother-in-law encouraged her and looked after me while my mother did her year twelve exams.

My father got a new job so we moved away from our family in Melbourne and settled in Hobart. I remember at dinner my father would invariably ask what my mother had done that day. As a seven or eight year old I disliked the question because I knew the dreary response that would come from my mother. “I washed the clothes and hung them out, then I vacuumed the stairs and upstairs….” Zzzzzz. As a child I recognised how deadly dull my mother’s life was and felt sorry for her.

Of course I didn’t say anything to her about that at the time but years later Mum told me how much she dreaded that habitual question from my father. However, my father was listening. “He saw I was bored”, she said. An advertisement in the newspaper attracted my father’s attention. It was about studying at university. He encouraged my mother to apply.  This would have been 1972 or 1973. Continue reading