22 September 2007

Australia: Document detectives

The Sydney Morning Herald wrote about document detectives in Australia:

According to the story, Australian genealogy societies have tens of thousands of members, and some 6,000 belong to the Society of Australian Genealogists.

Although not mentioned in the story, there are also very active Jewish genealogy associations in Sydney and Melbourne. For details concerning groups in Adelaide, Perth and Canberra, click "contact details" here. See "links" on that page for many useful Jewish genealogy links.

Driven by digitising and the internet, genealogy has become a global obsession - but Australians might be losing access to valuable records, writes David Humphries.

Among the dozens of "live" files about dead people on Jan Worthington's North Shore desk is a job from England, where an aristocrat wants to know if any of a long-departed ancestor's vast Sydney land-holdings might still be available for inheritance.

"The family contacted me to search for any Sydney land still in the family but previously overlooked," says the document detective, a professional genealogist for 24 years, who says her Worthington Clark consultancy is always inundated with work.

It's a work in progress, given the huge task of checking every bit of property that was in the ancestor's enormous holdings.

But the presumably cash-strapped Brits should not give up hope, even if such inquiries can open the gate to competing claims. "I did a case years ago where a strip of land in central Sydney had been overlooked because of faulty title," Worthington says. "I had to chase down this huge family tree over several generations, because each and every survivor was entitled to a share. Everything had to be proved."

Worthington's business is an eye-opener to anyone who thinks genealogy - the tracing of pedigree - is a fuddy-duddy world of cobwebs and indexes, where participants might appear as dead as those they pursue.

New South Wales just finished History Week, and five events related to genealogy, including information on tracing family members.

According to the story, "There is an army on the march, rolling back the details of generations lost or obscured by the dust of time."

"It's something you become terribly wrapped in," says Malcolm Sainty, the president of the Society of Australian Genealogists, who got his start 45 years ago through curiosity about his family origins and now runs a publishing business built on joining the dots of lineage.

"It becomes like a detective story, and it sort of grabs you because you've got various bits of evidence and they don't quite fit. Why they don't fit, and where to find the missing bits, becomes an all-embracing interest."

When he worked on his family history, he wrote hundreds of letters to find documents and traveled frequently to England, from where his great-grandfather had immigrated.

In these amazing days of internet resources, such searches are much easier although the question of accuracy still remains, and not everything is available online ... yet!

The story also brings up some points of contention:

Therein is one pitfall of internet research. Global attempts to suck up all detail, to index and catalogue it, and to digitise each record, have met resistance for reasons that range from intellectual property argument and disputes over compensation, to jealousy and interdenominational suspicion.

For instance, in the middle of the last century the Mormons started filming English parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials - which can go back to 1538 - so they could baptise ancestors into their faith.

"What's there is pretty accurate, but a lot of churches in England didn't like the idea and refused to have their records filmed by the Mormons," Sainty says. "So there are big holes in it, and that can lead to big errors."

The story deals with record digitization and its challenges. One archive staffer says of her materials: "If the cartons of records were put side by side, they'd stretch for 60 kilometres," adding that 75 percent of clients - some 20,000 - are doing family histories. Her archive has negotiated with Ancestry.com which arrived in Australia about a year ago and "has been buying access to records at a hectic pace."

Lack of public investment is discussed, and one official worries that private entrepreneurs will obtain large collections and charge premium prices, denying access to those who can't afford it. He adds that only large state libraries and universities can afford the fees, and the problem is balancing private interest and public good.

The document detective who figures in the story reveals that some clients have paid up to Aus$20,000 for their family trees, with cases ranging from heirlooms to attempted false identity. "Every family has its skeletons in the closet."

Read more here.

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