Online family history services

The internet is opening a treasure trove for family history researchers.
 
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01 .Introduction

family-ties

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 eventsbirths, 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.

 
 

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02.Births, deaths and marriage records online

 

We recommend using the free websites listed below, starting with the Births, Deaths and Marriages government sites in Australia and the UK, if that's where your relatives link to. If all these avenues have been exhausted, then consider paying for access to other sources.

The paid sites give you access to a database to make the job of tracing relatives easier and streamline the process of researching and sharing a family tree. There can also be ongoing costs for the convenience of having a one-stop shop for your family tree.

It’s important to read sites’ privacy policies, particularly if the site isn’t based in Australia as it won’t adhere to our privacy laws. Sensitive, personal family information should be protected, and keep in mind that not everyone in the family tree may want it put online.

State government websites

It’s now possible to find records for relatives going back several generations, and in some cases complete records and certificates can be viewed online.

Start with your home state or territory births, deaths and marriages website.

Other resources

Accuracy is another thing to consider. It’s wise to check and verify things, particularly for information that goes back a long way, to avoid publishing inaccurate information.

Paid family history sites

Always read the fine print before signing up and be wary of supplying credit card details to activate a free trial. Local sites include ancestry.com.au and findmypast.com.au, which also have links to UK and US records. Note that a library edition of ancestry.com.au can be used at the NLA.

A few others include My Heritage, TribalPages and One Great Family.

You might want to consider sharing the cost among several people in your family interested in contributing who then have “time share” access to the site for their research. Not only will this save money, it will also encourage family members to collaborate on the project and share information they’ve uncovered.

Cemetery records

Location technology is starting to be used to help family historians locate relevant gravestones and burial sites on a map on a cemetery’s website. 

In Australia, the Centennial Park Cemetery in Adelaide, which has 134,000 burial and memorial sites, has made records available online along with location details so that family historians can find information about relatives, including age, date of death and area of residence, and directions to a site. 

It also plans to release a smartphone app to provide onsite mapping and location information to historians that can be used when they are within the cemetery to help locate sites. 

Go to Centennial Park website and follow the links from the Deceased Search tab.

DNA Ancestry Search Websites

The new frontier in family history research appears to be in DNA testing. Services have sprung up around the world offering DNA ancestry testing for a fee that can be upwards of $300. Most services have websites with information on how and what they test and offer downloadable information kits, with some even claiming to be able to link people to well-known figures from history.

However, the growth in this new field of research has also attracted criticism. Some scientists and geneticists say the tests are essentially meaningless in terms of showing reliable links to ancestral origins. The results are probabilities and aren’t conclusive; for example, in terms of ancestral origin to a geographic area, a guaranteed link can’t be established.

Other experts are uneasy about these services because the databases of samples are limited and rely on assumptions that may not be accurate. Each individual has a set of genes derived from thousands of ancestors, and these tests can skew the picture by looking so far back into the past. 

There are no genetic ancestry testing standards or framework to make the results better understood to people who want an insight into their ancient ancestry.

A good discussion of this new area of research with useful links to DNA project websites, such as surname or regional, is available on the genealogy reference site genuki. Other sites can be found by searching for DNA ancestry projects online.

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