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Family history FAQ

The following FAQs provide practical tips for researching your family history. For more ideas, see our family history tools and family history eresources.

How can I obtain a birth, death or marriage certificate?

To get a copy of a certificate, you first need to check the relevant index to find the registration number. You can access all published Australian birth, death and marriage indexes in the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust Family History Reading Room. Many public libraries also hold copies of Victorian indexes to births, deaths and marriages.

Once you have the relevant index number, you can buy copies of certificates from the relevant registry in either hardcopy or electronic format. State Library Victoria does not hold copies of birth, marriage or death certificates.

Unrestricted historical certificates are available in Victoria for births occurring 100 or more years ago, marriages occurring 60 or more years ago and deaths occurring 10 or more years ago. For other states, please check with the relevant registry.

For a full list of available indexes and further information on how to obtain certificates, please see our Key Victorian family history resources research guide.

Where can I find electoral rolls?

The Victorian electoral rolls are available on microfiche in the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust Family History Reading Room for the years 1856/57, 1899 and 1903–2008 (not published every year). The Australian Electoral Commission stopped releasing electoral rolls on microfiche in 2008.

Interstate electoral rolls are also available on microfiche; however, coverage varies from state to state so check the Library catalogue for our holdings.

The Ancestry Library Edition database contains selected Australian electoral rolls, with the exception of South Australia, running from 1903 to 1980. Licence restrictions mean that Ancestry cannot be made available to Library users at home, but it is available at all Victorian public library services.

About electoral rolls

Produced by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), the electoral roll is a list of the names and addresses of everyone who is eligible and enrolled to vote in Australia.

The previous policy, which restricted people from searching the electoral roll for information about other people, was reversed in April 2015. According to the new rules about public access to the most current electoral roll in AEC offices, introduced in April 2015:

  • members of the public may access the publicly available roll on Public Access Terminals in AEC offices without challenge as to the purpose which they are accessing the roll
  • AEC staff will still monitor public access to the roll to enforce the restriction on copying or recording the roll by electronic means
  • AEC staff will monitor public access to the roll in relation to the length of time an individual member of the public uses a terminal in order to ensure that other members of the public can also gain access in a timely fashion

Note that under the rules, you may not copy, record or photograph any information from the electoral roll with any electronic device.

For further information on electoral rolls and a detailed list of Victorian rolls, please see our Key Victorian family history resources research guide.

Can I access the Ancestry database at the State Library?

Ancestry Library Edition (similar to is available free of charge on all PCs in the Library.

Ancestry is one of the leading genealogy databases and covers North America, Europe and an increasing collection of Australian and New Zealand records. You’ll find a broad range of records, including directories, electoral rolls and census, immigration, land and birth, marriage and death records.

Licence restrictions mean that Ancestry cannot be made available to Library users at home, but it is available at all Victorian public library services.

There are many other Family History databases available in the Library. For more information please Ask a librarian.

I need help with my family history research

The State Library has the designated Helen Macpherson Smith Trust Family History Reading Room, where you can access genealogy books, indexes, databases and microform collections. The room is open during normal library opening hours and there are staff available to help you get started with your research.

We also have an excellent range of family history research guides that you can access from home to help you identify the key resources available in the Library.

We also regularly host events and training for those interested in family history, including free genealogy workshops. Each year we run the Family History Feast, a day-long seminar for genealogists. You can watch and listen to many past family history events online.

To hear about upcoming family history events, check our What's on calendar or visit our Family matters blog.

If you can’t get in to the Library and you have an enquiry about family history research, you can Ask a librarian to point you in the right direction.

How can I find information about ancestors who served in WWI and WWII?

The National Archives of Australia holds records about service in the Australian defence forces from Federation in 1901, including World War I and World War II.

You can also search the Australian War Memorial website, which includes a number of searchable databases such as nominal rolls for both world wars.

For information specifically relating to World War I, please see our Researching Australians in World War I research guide, which provides research tips and suggested resources for tracing information about individual soldiers. It is primarily concerned with Australian soldiers, but there is also British information, as the Australian forces were under British command during World War I.

What can I do in the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust Family History Reading Room of the State Library of Victoria?

The Helen Macpherson Smith Trust Family History Reading Room is an excellent starting point for your family history research. You will find on open access key Australian and international source materials, such as birth, death and marriage indexes, electoral rolls, directories, ships' passenger lists, convict listings, and will and probate records. You can also check a range of online resources, such as Ancestry Library Edition and FindMyPast, which are available free of charge on-site at the Library.

While in the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust Family History Reading Room, you can also find background information about your family in the Library's wonderful collection of Victorian, Australian and overseas newspapers in the Herald and Weekly Times Newspapers Reading Room, whether it be birth, death and marriage notices, obituaries or local news stories. For more information, please see our two research guides: How to find newspapers and How to find items in newspapers.

How do I start my family history?

  • A good way to start is to write down what you know about your family, starting with yourself.
  • Talk to relatives (if possible) and ask them what they know.
  • Collect copies of documents about relatives held by family members. (Examples include: birth, marriage and death certificates, photos, diaries, letters, family bibles, newspaper clippings.)
  • Enter basic information about relationships between generations over time in a pedigree chart and drop-down chart.
  • Build the stories of individual lives by performing a series of research tasks following the four-part form: A person. Performing a life activity. In a place. At a time. Think of potential life activities. Examples include: being born, marrying, arriving at a country by ship, living in a house, voting.
  • Search for and identify documents that might have recorded details of a particular life activity, in a place at a time.
  • Search library and record archives collections for documents of interest. You may wish to visit the Library’s Helen Macpherson Smith Trust Family History Reading Room.
  • We have a series of research guides that will help you identify the most useful resources.

Where do I find records of convicts transported to Australia?

  • The Port Phillip District/Victoria was not a penal colony, although a large number of 'Exiles' were sent to the Port Phillip District between 1844 and 1849.
  • Convicts transported to the Australian colonies were documented in a range of legal, government and commercial records through the various stages of their individual careers, oversees and in the Australian penal colonies. Penal colony dates: NSW 1788–1842; Tasmania 1803–53; Norfolk Island 1788–1814, 1825–55; Moreton Bay, Queensland 1824–42, 1849–50; Western Australia 1826–31, 1842–49,1850–68.
  • Generally, overseas records are held by the national government and county archives in England and Ireland, while colonial records are held by the government records archives in the states that operated as penal colonies.

You can begin your research in this area by searching the websites for the various archives in which you can find online research guides and searchable indexes. Examples include The National Archives UK, State Records of New South Wales and Linc Tasmania. For a complete list of state archives and libraries, please see our Key Victorian family history resources research guide.

Where can I find family history records for Indigenous Australians?

  • The most important place to begin is with family members. If possible, get family members and relatives talking about what they already know about names, places of connection and family relationships.
  • Along with records such as birth, marriage and death certificates and electoral rolls, many Aboriginal people are mentioned in the records of government-administered missions, stations and reserves.
  • Please check our Aboriginal people and family history research guide, introducing the various types of records, resources, record repositories and basic research strategies associated with this area of research.

How do I find adoption records in Victoria?

Legal adoption commenced in Victoria with the Adoption of Children Act 1928, which came into effect in 1929. To access legal adoption records from 1929, you will need to lodge an application with the Family Information Networks and Discovery (FIND) service at the Victorian Department of Human Services. Access restrictions apply.

For more information on adoption records, please see our Adoption and Forgotten Australians research guide.

How do I find my ancestor's arrival into Victoria?

You can search indexes to Victorian passenger arrivals up until 1923 on the Public Record Office Victoria website. These indexes cover passengers who departed from overseas ports only. Intercolonial arrivals (e.g. passengers travelling from Adelaide to Melbourne) are not included.

Microfiche copies of these passenger lists are available to view and copy in our Helen Macpherson Smith Trust Family History Reading Room. Passenger lists after 1923 are held at the National Archives of Australia. Some of these records have been indexed on their Record Search database. Many records of individuals arriving into Australia are also included on the Fremantle Passenger Lists, 1897–1963 database, available on Ancestry Library Edition (available for free in the Library building). Most European ships stopped at Fremantle before continuing on to other Australian ports.

For more information on searching for your ancestor's arrival into Victoria, please see our Victorian immigration and emigration research guide.

Are there census records for Victoria?

Unfortunately, there are very few surviving Victorian census records that include information on individuals. For more information on Australian census records, and what records have survived please see our Early Australian census records research guide.