Finding the family story
“Genealogy is not just building a family tree,” Helen McLaughlin explains.
“People want to know exactly how their ancestors lived and what they did, and that’s where many of the University Archives’ records are particularly helpful.”
Primarily used by students and staff for research, teaching and learning, the University’s extensive archives are also open to the public.
Growing interest in genealogy and a dramatic increase in the number of people requesting information about their families spurred the University’s archivists to run public sessions on how to approach genealogical research, and how to best access the University’s extensive records.
“During the University’s last Festival of Ideas, we did a session with the Genealogical Society of Victoria on family history sources,” Ms McLaughlin says.
The session was full, and there was still more interest, so archivists will run similar sessions at this year’s Cultural Treasures Festival, to be held 28-29 July. “It’s an opportunity for us to give back to the community.
“Web 2.0 and social media have contributed to the growing interest in genealogical research, and modern technology is allowing people far more access to databases and other sources which weren’t readily accessible twenty or thirty years ago.”
The University’s Archives were started in 1960. Today, the collected items stretch for more than 18 kilometres of shelves.
Ms McLaughlin says from the very beginning, the purpose of the Archives was not just to document the history of the University, but also to collect items to support research.
“The University’s first Archivist, Frank Strahan, was known for his zeal and eccentricity in collecting but, 52 years later, we can look back and there’s a wealth of material and wonderful intent behind his collection items.”
In the 1960s the focus was primarily on collecting items relating to economic history, business collections, and commerce history and sources.
Mr Strahan targeted businesses which had been in business for more than 100 years which were in financial crises or closing down, and provided a new home for their records.
“He was instrumental in keeping a really great record of Victorian and Melbourne business, which expanded in the 1970s to include trade union and labour records,” Ms McLaughlin says.
“We hold amazing Melbourne-based records, and it’s these kinds of items, and the people identified in them, which can benefit genealogists.
“Labour history and trade union records have a wealth of information for people interested in family history.”
The business collections also have many useful sources such as wage books and employment cards.
The archive also holds extensive general records of community groups, including a large collection of records relating to protest movements, and women’s collections to do with feminisim, lesbianism and women’s rights, which Ms McLaughlin says contain a “really huge amount of sources”.
“There are many records documenting generations of families working for the same company, and large collections of Union records, including the Confectioners’ Union – the representative body for workers in an industry that was one of the biggest employers of women.
“One of the really beautiful examples we have is of records from the Textile Workers’ Union. It goes right back to the 1800s. We’ve got membership cards of two sisters who started in the Union in 1934 and 36 respectively, as well as the details of their households, who were all likewise involved in the Union.”
Another frequently used source is the University of Melbourne Social Survey, which was conducted from 1941-43. The researchers surveyed 7500 households around Melbourne in great detail, not just at a general census level, but about social matters including income, their plans for the future, and whether they owned or rented their houses.
“The level of detail means these documents are still being used in research today,” Ms McLaughlin says.
“So if you knew your grandparents lived in a certain house that was part of the survey, you could look up all the details. You do need to know names and dates, but if we have those, we can try to find any pertinent information.
“Often, someone will come in and say, ‘My dad studied medicine but went off to the war’, or, ‘I think my grandfather studied medicine here’, so the archivists can look for their records in the student cards, the wages books and union records to build knowledge for the family tree.”
Student cards are the Archives’ most commonly requested items. The hand-written student cards include details of every student who studied at the University from the 1850s to the 1970s, and the detailed cards include names, courses and results.
“We also have a wealth of pamphlets and collections that you might not think would help with genealogy,” Ms McLaughlin says.
“We have real estate collections which detail transfers and purchases of land and houses, legal firms’ records which detail probate and wills, even architectural plans with the commissioning families’ names on them. There really are endless sources.”
And the University’s collections do not strictly relate to Melbourne: archivists went out into rural Victoria, and some things they collected which may have seemed obscure several years ago are now of great research value.
Such items include a plate glass negative collection from a photographic studio in Benalla. Archivists worked with the local community to restore and digitise the records, which contributed to projects in the local area, and were used by the Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment to make flood comparisons using photos from the 1920s and now.
The archives also hold extensive department and faculty records as well as Vice-Chancellors’ correspondence and other papers relating to staff.
“If your ancestors worked here, we may have information about them, or the personal papers of significant staff may mention relatives who were students or colleagues,” Ms McLaughlin says.
She says even the archivists are still constantly surprised by some of the things they find.
“It’s wonderful to work with such valuable, precious resources ... this is a fun job.
“Some collections are subject to privacy and varying access restrictions, but generally if you come to us with names and dates, we can have a look for you.”
The Cultural Treasures Festival is a free two-day event over the weekend of 28 and 29 July.
On the same weekend there are two other major events being held on campus: the 39th ANZAAB Australian Antiquarian Book Fair which will be held in the University’s Wilson Hall, and the Melbourne Open House program which involves numerous buildings of architectural interest on campus, as well as some of the University colleges.