Standing in a cemetery, Barbara holds a tissue in her shaking hand as she brushes her hair to the side. She was adopted at the age of one and has never known the parents who gave her up, or the families they had after her. Holding a photo in her hand, she looks down. “It’s wonderful. I’ve always wanted a sister,” she says. Another photo is handed to her. Staring back at her is a man that she doesn’t know – her father.
Barbara’s story is like many others that live with a constant question mark over a family and a part of a life they have never known. The channel Seven program, Find My Family delves into people’s need to know who their families are and where they come from. Weekly, they search for the missing, the unknown, and the loved ones that have slipped away and left a gaping hole in the hearts and curious minds of their families.
The quest that families undertake is not as easy or as quick as it seems to be on screen. For some, years of research go into what the series creators are able to cram into a half-hour block. But what the show has generated is a new breed of family historians searching for their own ancestry.
Eleanor Pugsley, Research Manager at the Genealogical Society of Victoria, agrees that there has been a rise in interest in genealogy with the release of shows like, Find My Family. And, this rise in interest has brought with it a new breed of online culture. There is now a blogging society of genealogists who are internationally connected by their searches.
One of the many online historians is Victorian resident Robyn Fisher, who has always been interested in her family history. “I always wanted to find out more about my heritage,” she said. This curiosity has led her on a long journey of family discoveries 15 years in the making and has enabled her to document her success on her online blog.
Originally, Robyn wanted to find out more about her maternal grandparents, both of whom had siblings in the double digits in their respective families. “I wanted to know where they all fitted in,” she said. In the 1990s, Robyns’ research began. Without the same technologically-based resources that we have today, most of her research was done through letter writing and phone calls.
“Initially I gathered first hand information from my relatives and created descendant charts by hand. Lots of letter writing and phone calls, copying photographs, photocopying papers and transcribing by hand. Lots of paper-based records,” she said.
It was a slow and steady process. However, it was one that proved to be rather rewarding for Robyn. It was through her research that she has uncovered new relatives and family secrets. “Ten bar maids in a small inn weren’t all serving beer, I think,” she said.
With new research being produced in recent years Robyn was able to continue her research online through internet ancestry databases. Eleanor Pugsley also claims that online databases like ancestry.com.au have motivated the family historian to use simpler methods of research.
“It has greatly stimulated interest together with other commercial sites, which had made some research records much easier to access,” she said. So could it be said that pay-per-view websites like the more commonly popular ancestry.com.au are turning the modern day family historian into their own genealogist?
Advertisements for websites would have you believe so. It’s the ads that we see on television during the screening of Find my Family and others like it (Channel Nine’s, Who do you think you are?), that have really attracted attention.
It’s on our television screens that we see an expanding family tree in the background of the commercial and a woman looking directly down the lens of the camera. “I wanted to find out about my great great-grandfather,” she said. She continues to explain how a friend told her about ancestry.com.au. “I found all kinds of historical documents, including a record that showed he was a convict. It’s funny no one ever told me about that,” she laughs. “You really don’t have to know what you’re looking for. You just have to start looking,” she finishes.
So just how do you begin tracing your genealogy? According to these advertisements, we needn’t look any further than, Ancestry.com.au. The website was formed in 2006 and is Australia’s leading online provider of family history resources. With 1.4 billion names on its worldwide servers, the website has provided its members with easily accessible information.
Like all good marketing schemes, the television advertisement makes it all seem so quick and easy. You could mistake the process for being the missing link between yourself and the history you have never known. But is it really?
Elliot Wrann, is another at home genealogist. Born in the United States of America, Elliot was always curious about his ancestry. However, he says that he never pursued this curiosity beyond a few questions to his parents. With the birth of his son in 2004, Elliot decided that he wanted to start compiling information about his heritage. “I wanted to be prepared to give him answers,” he said.
Like Robyn, Elliot is a part of a global network of online bloggers with his blog WrannGen. His research first started with information previously compiled by his uncles and aunties, later moving on to sites like ancestry.com.au. However, the usefulness of this site was not as promising as the advertisements had made it out and Elliot could only get so far. “I started travelling to City Halls and Municipal Archives offices in the cities of some of my ancestors,” he said
Difficulties in tracing the place in Germany where his great, great-grandfather Ferdinand Gustave Wrann was from means that Elliot’s research has come to a standstill. “Without knowing what town or village he was born in had put my Wrann research at a standstill,” he said.
His blog is now a basis for which he hopes to continue his research. He remains hopeful that someone might stumble upon his blog and provide the missing link to his family history. “Wrann is an uncommon name so I figured by having a website dedicated to that family line that maybe, just maybe another Wrann would stumble across it,” he said. And although he likes to watch shows like Find my Family, he believes it is all too simple on screen. “I think they make it look much easier than it actually is,” he said.
Researchers or not, it is undeniable that the two blogging historians have been taken on an unexpected and rewarding journey. For Elliot it was the discovery of his great grandfather, Gustav Wrann’s brothers and half brothers descendants, an experience which he claims to be ‘the most rewarding and totally unexpected’ of his entire research.
And Robyn, with 15 years of research under her belt, admits her greatest difficulty during her journey has been staying focused. “Staying focused and not getting sidetracked when you find something new and exciting about your families on the web,” she said. “It’s so easy to get engrossed.”
So do they consider themselves to be genealogists? Not Robyn. “I am a family historian rather than a genealogist,” she says. “The social history is what makes it interesting for me.”
Monica Zen is a second year Media Studies student at La Trobe University.