We explain how you can conduct family history research online with births, deaths, marriage and other government records.
When you reach a certain age, tracing your family history becomes important. This often happens later in life when many older relatives have passed away. But filling in the blanks about your ancestors is becoming easier as more records are published online.
As teams of people continue to scan and digitise records, information is becoming more readily available, although piecing together a family history is still a time-consuming exercise.
Where should you start?
- Gather family details from living relatives before going online so you have something to start with. Get as many of the important details, such as names, dates and places, as you can – and maybe record their stories to add a bit of colour to your family story.
- Most family history software will let you attach multimedia files, so these can be included in your database.
- The next step is to go to the official records of the most significant life events – births, deaths and marriages (BDM). Find the relevant BDM registry online. Note, however, that recent records are restricted by privacy laws. Birth records in NSW can be found online from 1788 to 1911, death records from 1788 to 1981 and marriage records up to 1961, but records for more recent years can only be viewed, with identification, by those named on the certificate. Local libraries hold copies of BDM records on microfiche.
- Some other areas for your research include war, cemetery and immigration records, newspaper archives for notices, convict registers, The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Family History Unit and service records. Links for many of these and other sites can be found on the National Library of Australia’s (NLA) family history page.
- Joining a family history group can help you meet others with similar interests and provide help if you run into a dead end with your research. Some groups have their own resources and run seminars to help educate people on how to find out about their ancestors.
- You can pay the BDM registry to conduct a search on your behalf if you don’t want to do the searching yourself, but this costs a fee for each search. There are also transcription agents, but be sure to only use one licensed by the registry and check on the cost. These can be useful if you want some details but not a full copy or transcript of a certificate.
Family tree software
We tested family history software in 2010. We haven't tested any programs this time, but many of the same programs now have newer versions you can purchase to create your own family history database.
There are some free programs for recording family history. Gramps has a good list of features and is relatively easy to use. Personal Ancestral File (PAF) is best used with PAF Companion for printing charts and reports, and both can be downloaded for free, while Brother’s Keeper is a Windows-only program that can be downloaded online.
Several features are important in a family tree program. GEnealogical Data COMmunication (GEDCOM) is a standardised format for recording family history data. GEDCOM compatibility allows easy sharing of data with other researchers and is also needed to upload files to online genealogy sites. The free programs all save files in this format.
Look for a program compatible with multimedia such as video, photos and audio so you can include interviews, family photos and scanned certificates or records.