News & Stories

Family history: where do I start?

Our Family History program coordinator has some essential tips to help you get started on tracing your ancestry.


Before you start researching your family history, you should ask yourself one very basic question: what exactly are you looking for?

It sounds obvious but, according to University of Tasmania historian and coordinator of Family History program Dr Kate Bagnall, a lot of people forget this first step.

“When people become interested in doing their family history, they have different aims,” she said. “One person might want to trace their family tree back as far as they can go, while another might want to find out more about their grandma’s adoption.

“Having a think about what you want to find out, and the information you already have to work with, always helps you get started.”

Around 2000 people have graduated with a Diploma of Family History from the University of Tasmania since the online course was first offered in 2016 and Kate said students came from all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of goals in mind.

“The bulk of students are doing this for personal interest. A large proportion are older learners and retirees, as family history is often something people come to later in life.

“People reach that age and want to know more about where they came from and leave a legacy for their kids and grandkids. They get to a point where they realise if they don’t start doing the family history, those stories will be lost forever.”

In case you’re thinking about doing some family history of your own, the Diploma of Family History team have put together a list of the top six things you should ask yourself before you get started.

1. What do I want to find out?

Tracing your family history can take you back centuries, and on all manner of tangents, so it’s helpful to have a clear goal in mind. Are you hoping to draw up a family tree? Are you hoping to find out where your grandmother came from before she was adopted? Did you find a box of old photos in your late uncle’s house after he died, and want to know more about the people in them? Knowing what you’re looking for will help you to narrow down your focus, decide what information is important, and figure out where to start.

2. What do I already know?

Think about any of the stories you’ve been told by your older family members, and whether they contain any relevant information. Take stock of any documents, photos or other records that you or your family have that that could be useful. There’s no point spending time digging for stuff you already have in your possession! And try drawing up a basic family tree with what you already know and see where the gaps are.

3. Who in the family can I ask to tell me more?

Talk to your parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and so forth. Before you even start hitting the library and archives, remember that your family members might have memories or know names, dates and places that you’re looking for. And even if you already have plenty of established facts, they could be the ones who help you flesh out those human stories with their own memories, or remember other details that aren’t going to be in the official records, like what it was like inside someone’s house or what kind of person they were.

4. What family papers, photographs or heirlooms do I or other family members have?

Family papers, like birth and marriage certificates, and photographs are obvious sources you might have at home. But objects are another thing that can yield interesting details or memories about someone’s life. And they can be very humble things, too, not necessarily something as illustrious as grand-dad’s pocket watch.

“Some of my most treasured things from my grandma are just everyday items,” Kate said. “Like the little eggbeater that she used to use. It’s not necessarily valuable but things like that can have real human meaning.”

5. How might my questions / discoveries affect other members of the family?

It’s important to remember that there are ethical issues involved here as well. Some family mysteries are a mystery precisely because someone didn’t want it to be known. Issues like illegitimacy, adoption or family violence can all be present in a family, in a past that nobody else knows about. So, when you find something sensitive, take a moment to consider if that person or their children are still alive. Would revealing that truth be worth the emotional trauma it might cause to living relatives?

6. Where can I go to find out how to do my family history?

Your local library is always a great start, as they often have someone on staff who specialises in family and local history, who knows where the records are and how to search them. Most places also have local historical societies or family history societies, run by volunteers for whom this is their passion. Attending family history conferences, or just talking to others who are into family history, can be a huge help because that is where you can get new ideas or fresh eyes on things that might be stumping you.

Of course, another way to learn all you need to know about researching your family history is to enrol in the University of Tasmania’s Diploma of Family History course. Taught entirely online, the part-time course is available to study from anywhere.