State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 47 & 48 1991


Family History and The La Trobe Library

Family Historians constitute more than half of the La Trobe Library's patrons. They come because of the collecting policies of generations of librarians. No other library has the same quantity of published Victorian resources. Researchers originally came here for the complete runs of directories, government publications, newspapers, biographical sources, manuscripts and illustrations. This still happens, but because of the response of this Library to the needs of family history researchers, the researchers also come in search of the rapidly expanding resources for Victoria and other States. Acquisitions in recent years have included microform copies of previously unique records such as the Genealogical Research Kit published by the Archives Office of New South Wales. The indexes to births, deaths and marriages for all Australian States are held, and many other publications too numerous to mention.
Another major response to the community's expanding interest in family history was for the Library to create the position of Family and Local History Librarian in 1986. This is a senior position within the La Trobe Library, which indicates the Library's level of commitment to the area. This was the first such position established in any Slate Library in Australia. The position is unusual in another respect; it crosses the divide between the Reference Library and the La Trobe Library and is concerned with both Australian and overseas research. Eventually it is planned that collections
from both areas will come together in one access point in the redeveloped Library.
For the remainder of this article, I shall concentrate on two topics. These are a personal view of the value of genealogy and its future, and the Genealogy Publications programme as a response to conflicting demands within the Library's roles. I shall not be touching on the local history aspect of my role. This does not imply any lack of importance of the topic, merely that in serving family history much is accomplished for local history.
My personal view of the value of family history commences with a definition of terms. In The Dictionary of Genealogy by Terrick V. H. Fitzhugh genealogy is described as the study of descents of families from an ancestor; the definition of family history applies specifically to biographical research into one's forebears with the objective of compiling a narrative history of the family. Genealogy which results in a sterile chart listing names with birth and death dates may be interesting to the individual and compulsive, like the need to fill every blank square of a crossword puzzle, but it has little enduring value. Family history which places antecedents in a social and historical context can have far greater relevance to both the individual and the wider community. Fay Weldon's comments in The President's Child are appropriate here: ‘you cannot satisfactorily root yourself in the here and how, however pleasant it seems, without including for yourself a past and a future, via ancestors and descendants, part of the great dance of the generations’.
There had been an expectation in Australia that once the bicentenary celebrations ceased there would be a great reduction in the interest in family history research. A similar prediction was made for the USA and its bicentenary. The problem with these propositions is that they ignore the tremendous and growing interest in genealogy present in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Perhaps the supporters of the anniversary theory would link this interest with the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book in 1986!
There are other factors influencing the interest in genealogy. These include the influences of rising literacy levels, increasing leisure, natural curiosity about ourselves and our origins, increasing availability of records and the cultural trend away from the history of ‘greats’ to a more democratic view of history. These are the long-term preconditions onto which are grafted specific catalysts such as significant anniversaries and regional variations such as European migration to the USA and Australia.
‘In the area of genealogy the Library has worked towards balancing conservation and access.’
The second part of this article concerns the two main roles I see for the La Trobe Library. The primary role is to be a secure repository for information about Victoria and Australia. This is a continuing responsibility and relates to collecting and conserving records, particularly those of Victoria. The second role is to respond to contemporary demands for access to information and to provide a good reference service. When there has been a great upsurge of interest in a specific area, such as family history research and it occurs in a period of economic restraint, then these two roles of the State Library of Victoria are in conflict. The resolution of this conflict requires sufficient money to ensure the conservation of fragile records. In the absence of sufficient funds for consevation, there has come into being a programme of microfiching of records which are heavily used and are most at risk of loss. This is the Genealogy Publications programme.
The genesis of this programme was a loan from the Friends of the La Trobe Library. The first publication was the Baillieres Post Office Directory of Victoria 1868–1881. At the time, the State Library had the only complete set of these directories; since that first publication in 1982, over 300 sets of these directories have been sold on microfiche to societies, libraries and individuals. That first loan, and several subsequent loans from the Friends were repaid as costs were recouped from sales. A further group, the Custodians of Records, provided added assistance. The Custodians are the publishers of Family and Local History Sources in Victoria, edited by Frances Brown, Dom Meadley and Marjorie Morgan, and is now in its fourth edition.
The Custodians have donated to the Genealogy Publications programme over $ 13,000 derived from sales of the sources book. This donation has supported the expansion of the programme to the point at which almost every directory for Melbourne and Victoria from 1839 to 1900 has been reproduced onto microfiche. That last date will gradually be extended to include twentieth-century directories.
I shall comment on several other publications to show how the programme works first to conserve vulnerable records, and secondly to build up the information resources on Victoria held in the State Library and disseminate sources so that they may be more widely available in Victoria and Australia.
The directories have already been mentioned. Suffice it to say that in the absence of census household reports and in view of few surviving nineteenth-century Victorian electoral rolls, these records become the core of research for individuals and localities in Victoria. Nineteenth-century directories were probably viewed by contemporaries with the same lack of concern as most people today view the 1989 telephone book; the lack of other resources makes these records of tremendous importance as the most complete record of inhabitants of this State.
The only known surviving copy of the 1856 electoral roll for Victoria is part of the La Trobe Rare Books Collection. This roll plus the La Trobe card index to it, along with maps and the Black and White List (a publication which gave information on candidates and their voting record on specific issues) are now widely available. The 1899 Federal Referendum. Roll of electors who voted was similarly unique and available only at the Victorian Parliamentary Library. This is an example of a record now held at the State Library, which had not been available here before. The 1856/57 and 1899 electoral rolls are the only complete nineteenth-century rolls for Victoria.
For the twentieth century the La Trobe Library held rolls for 1908,1912 and then 1931 onwards. The first roll was published in 1903 and was not available anywhere in Victoria. For the Genealogy Publications programme, the unique copy held at the National Library of Australia in Canberra was borrowed, and reproduced onto microfiche. This is another example of expanding the information base in the State Library, and it also meant that the only copy of this first Commonwealth electoral roil could be removed from public access which was threatening its continued existence. The other Victorian electoral rolls which have been microfiched are those in most urgent need, these are 1908, 1912 and 1984. The gaps in Victoria's holdings between 1912 and 1931 are held in the National Library, although not every division for every published year has survived. This problem will eventually be diminished by microfiching selected years.
Another publication which was too late to be saved in its entirety is Port Phillip Government Gazettes 1843–1851. About six months of issues are missing; they could not be located at other libraries such as the parliamentary libraries in Victoria and New South Wales. Placing this publication onto microfiche is an insurance against further loss through continued use.
The Genealogy Publications programme has sold 2,126 sets of microfiche at a gross sales figure of $155,924 for the period 1982 to April 1990. It has been successful in reducing the tension between the Library's roles of conservation and access. Much remains to be achieved before one could become complacent.
Frances Brown