How Family History has Changed

There have been many changes in the way we do our family history since I first started trying to find my roots. I first became interested in my ancestry when I was a teenager. Of course, I had no money then, and was restricted to asking questions of my parents and my mother's parents (Dad's parents having already passed away). I'd then draw up charts and write down stories based on what I was told. In later years I learnt that a lot of what my mother told me was wrong. However, at that time I was unable to disprove any of these family stories and so happily believed them.

Old handwritten notes about my grandfather's WWI battalion. Photo credit: Jenny Joyce

When I went to University I still had no money, but had access to wonderful libraries. Since my ggg-grandfather, John Highett, and his brother, William, were early pioneers of Melbourne they appeared in lots of books, like the Australian Dictionary of Biography1 and Leask's Genealogies2 (amongst others). It was only later that I learnt that these publications had errors, and happily the online version of the Australian Dictionary of Biography now has the correct information in their entry.

When I went to live in England for a few years I was able sometimes to get to St Catherine's House and trawl through those huge quarterly indexes to births deaths and marriages to find entries to enable me to order birth, marriage and death certificates. And there are some of the things that have changed. St Catherine's House closed down many years ago, and those great big index books have been packed away, never again to see the delighted faces of researchers as they find the entry they are searching for. Once I moved back to Australia I would have to wait for trips back to England to search the books and order certificates. Yes, there were microfiche copies of the indexes in Australia, but I found them to be very poor quality and hard to read, and I would still have to go back to England to order the certificates to avoid paying an exorbitant fee for a foreign cheque. Because in those days you couldn't order certificates over the internet, in fact there was barely an internet as we know it now!

And it was while living in England that I found a library with microfiche of the International Genealogical Index (IGI). Combined with purchasing a few critical certificates, this allowed me to start to expand my family tree. Since then the IGI has been put online and morphed into FamilySearch. And I doubt any microfiche is being produced anymore, though there are still plenty of records and indexes being accessed in that form.

Old microfiche reader and microfiche. Photo credit: By Autopilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I also remember going somewhere to try and find my gg-grandfather, Adolphus Francis Alway, in the 1861 and 1871 censuses. I knew he had been born in Chipping Sodbury in Gloucestershire, and so got the microfilms for Chipping Sodbury and started going through them. I couldn't find him anywhere, but I did get very motion sick watching those images scroll past my eyes. It was only years later when the censuses went online on Ancestry that I found out that he and his family were living in Monmouthshire in Wales in 1861 and in Warwickshire in 1871. Without indexes that could search the whole country I would never have found them. And now we hear that FamilySearch will no longer be providing microfilm copies of their records.

So much has changed, but I'm not sorry to see the end of the microfilm induced motion sickness.

Photo credit: Microfilm by Deborah Fitchett, Licensed under a Creative Commons (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0))


  1. Nairn, Bede & Geoffrey Serle, 1922-1998 & Ward, Russel, 1914- & Pike, Douglas, 1908-1974. Australian dictionary of biography. Volume 4, 1851-1890, D-J. Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 1972. 

  2. Leask, B. Chalmers (Brian Chalmers). Leask's genealogical guide to some Australian families, their antecedents, and genealogies. Armadale, VIC: Australian Genealogies Pty Ltd, 1979. 

Jenny Joyce

About Jenny Joyce

Jenny Joyce is a professional genealogist, lecturer, teacher and writer from Sydney, Australia. She specialises in Australian, English, Irish and Scottish genealogy and has deep interest in DNA in relation to genealogy, palaeography and historical photography. She is the author of the Jennyalogy blog ( and the Jennyalogy Podcast (

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.