Lessons from Another Trip Down Under

by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA (Scot) 

Some of you may remember that I have been to New Zealand and Australia several times, usually wearing two hats–my genealogy hat and my tourist hat. I was back again in May and June, figuratively wearing two hats again, but I actually bought one as well; it is essential protection from the sun in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Whenever and wherever I travel there is something to learn that relates directly or indirectly to genealogy; this trip was no exception and I came home with three important reminders.

First Reminder
It took visits to two places to stir up the first bit of wisdom. At Waitera, near New Plymouth on the North Island of New Zealand, we were looking for the tourist information office and practically next door found the genealogy society library. It was a store front operation, busy with patrons and full of treasures, old newspapers in bound volumes, microfilm, books, and family histories. About ten days later in Kingscote, South Australia, there was a room at the cottage museum dedicated to the stories of the early families of the town. The walls were covered in photographs, sketches, small watercolor paintings, and typed or handwritten accounts of the early days; shelves and tables had albums of family photographs.

Talking to people in the library and enjoying the stories and pictures of the families of Kingscote, I was struck by the comfort of the library’s small scale and their personal contact. Both places brought a sense of immediacy, of being close to the past. When we sit at home in front of our monitors we need to remember to get out, meet people in person and discover local history first hand.

Second Reminder
You can learn from the perspective of others. This was brought home by attending a truly wonderful conference on another continent and by reading a publication of The Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra that I was given, Family History for Beginners and Beyond.

Canada, Australia, or the United States–wherever your starting point lies–much is similar and the view from another place can help anyone. The text of this Australian guide is clear, the progression sensible, and I really enjoyed the chapter on “Widening Your Horizon.” It encourages genealogists to explore beyond the immediate family and, in order to emphasize the point, includes interesting reviews of three books about Australian history. Resource lists at the end of each chapter are extensive and varied; every sort of resource is here–book, film, fiche, website, and CD-ROM. It is clearly evident that genealogical research is not confined to the Internet.

Third Reminder
The Tyranny of Distance — I like this phrase because it has punch, shouting out that distance does make a difference. The problems distance creates for those with British and European roots are shared by genealogists in New Zealand, Australia, and North America.

You are all familiar with the problems. Distance can mean that:

  • Some records are inaccessible;
  • Others have limited access or are in a format that does not work for you;
  • In some cases cost of document copies or images is too high;
  • There are sometimes bad experiences with those you have paid for assistance; 
  • There may be little hope of seeing where ancestors came from.

Online resources are making inroads and the problems are lessening; to some extent the Internet does help you deal with the tyranny of distance. Records are online–indexes, transcriptions, and images–and between pictures, maps, and full text books, you get pretty good impressions of far away places.

Nevertheless, everything is not resolved by what is on the Web. Online data had a featured place at the Congress in Darwin, and a point was stressed over and over again–research techniques are a vitally important part of successful online research. Genealogists have to understand what they are looking for, what they need to find, and what they are working with.

Putting These Into Practice
Can you put some of these ideas into practice? I try to, but could probably do better. It takes resolve to get out to meetings, read more widely, and take care to use careful techniques when researching online records. Perhaps the ideas sound like chores; however, they are not, every reminder adds to the enjoyment of family history.

Further Reading
Fletcher, Eunice. Family History for Beginners and Beyond. The Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra, Inc. 2004. (See also the society’s other publication, Family History Research Manager, which is full of forms and advice to go along with them.)

Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the author of Your English Ancestry (2d ed., 1998) and Researching Scottish Ancestry (2003), and she is a contributor to several publications. Since 1996, she has been a study-tour leader, course coordinator, and instructor for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Recently she served a two-year term as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists. Also, Sherry has teamed up with Helen Osborn for a new series of online courses. For more information, visit

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3 thoughts on “Lessons from Another Trip Down Under

  1. Sherry,

    While I’m only a member of Society of Australian Genealogists (and facilitator of their Family Tree Maker User Group) I’m sure that you and your readers would be welcome to visit the facilities (about to move to some new ones) the next time you or they are Down Under. But even if your non-Australian readers readers can’t make the long trip, they can visit a great web site at http://www.sag.org.au.

    Larry Czarnik
    2006ASP04 29:25

  2. I also attended the Darwin Congress in June, and it was wonderful to listen to Sherry Irvine speak. To be able to put a voice, and face to the writer whose articles I have read for several years, was a high point of my Northern Territory visit.
    Although we had many people from all the States of Australia, the overseas folk who had travelled so far, made the lectures very special I just hope Sherry will visit us again!!!

  3. Dear Sherry,
    It was interesting to note your comments on the availability of genealogical information in Australia. However, did you know that some Australian states have BMD on line whereas others have their records only in their Gen Soc sites; South Australia for example in the suburb of Unley. Visitors to far flung states then need to visit the Gen soc. offices for local information.
    Also census information has not been preserved in most instances so a useful resource is lost to the genealogist.

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