Friday, 29 October 2010

Talks tour of Australia - the report!

Well I'm now back in Scotland after a fantastic 12 days away in Australia, where I was invited to do a short talks tour of four major cities, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The major event on the itinerary was the Sydney Expo, where I gave four Scottish based talks over two days. The whole thing was arranged by Alan Phillips of Gould Genealogy and Unlock the Past, a relatively new venture currently underway headed by Gould Genealogy and genealogist Shauna Hicks, as well as a wonderful team of helpers across the country, including Mike Murray, Susie Zada, Rosemary Kopittke, the wonderful quartet of Anthea, Aimee, Sharon (mad about Sooty!) and Alona, and others, who made the entire venture run smoothly and professionally. Further thanks in particular must also go to my wonderful family down under - my nephew Luke in Connolly, WA, and his parents Anita and Declan; my uncle Bill and aunt Beth in Keysborough, Melbourne; my noble cousins Aly and Roslyn (and her new twin bubs!); and finally my cousin Brad and family in Eagleby, Queensland, all of whom put me up and ferried me around without a single complaint, going well and truly above and beyond the call of family duty!

In this post I will give a brief overview of where I visited and some initial observations, but over the next few days I will add further posts including video interviews, product reviews and brief observations on my time there, and specifically with reference to Scottish genealogy.

The pattern for the talks in Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane was to do an initial one hour talk on basic Scottish resources, with the majority of that based on the new look ScotlandsPeople site (including forthcoming developments), as well as other key basic resources that can be found online. Following a half hour break the second session then took a more detailed introductory look at two key areas - church records and land records - where things differ substantially to how research is done elsewhere in the British Isles. By its very definition this second talk was packed with information, but was essentially designed to introduce people to the unique challenges that face them when looking at the Scottish situation. The sessions ended with a final fifteen minutes where people could buy my book, ask questions, and in one lady's case, introduce herself as a distant cousin! At each venue I was absolutely mobbed by people in the breaks with questions, and there's nothing more exciting than having to think on your feet and provide answers machine gun style! I thoroughly enjoyed it, meeting many archivists and librarians for the first time, several ex-Pharos students and ordinary members of the public, and hopefully managing to provide some satisfactory answers along the way!

Beyond the talks I also managed to fit in a few other stops - in Perth I visited the Western Australia Genealogy Society Library (on my way to get a flight to Melbourne); I managed to visit my brainy boffin cousin Aly (pictured right) at work in the Melbourne Children's Hospital, where she gave me a tour of her fully functioning DNA lab (she sequences DNA as an assistant there) and to join many dots in my knowledge of DNA; Alan Phillips of Gould Genealogy gave me a very welcome tour of a very rainy Sydney Harbour, meaning that I got to see key sites such as the bridge, the opera house, but also buildngs such as the Society of Australian Genealogists premises and more; and in Brisbane, I managed at long last to visit Paton Street and Bell Street at Kangaroo Point (see below), named after members of my family who emigrated there on board the Chasely in 1849, perhaps the real highlight of the whole trip for me personally. I had one 'tourist' day off at the end, and managed to see many other sites around Brisbane and Queensland, the most notable of which was perhaps a tiny chip shop in Surfers Paradise with some of the best food ever! :) It was a PACKED schedule, but being so hit and run across the country it had a brilliant way of focussing the mind!

The Sydney Expo was the biggest event of the trip. This was a two day genealogy fair in Parramatta, on the scale of a show the size of the Newcastle based National Family History Fair, in the wonderful Parramatta Retired Services League Club (a sort of British Legion equivalent for Australia). There was a packed programme of talks there from genealogists and archivists from across Australia, and I managed to have conversations over coffees and drinks with Megan Gibson, one of the genealogists working on the Oz version of Who Do You Think You Are, who like me also has a TV production background (at last, I'm not alone! lol); Shauna Hicks, who is perhaps the best known gene genie in Oz; the brilliant Mike Murray of Time Trackers, who produces interview DVDs and does client research in WA, and whose father was from Shawbost on Lewis; and the team from, led by Debra Chesterton, with whom I had lunch on the Friday and who gave me a fantastic overview of the market that they deal with down under. Along the way I also shared converations with Susie Zada (who knows a thing or two about the genealogical potential of sewage maps!), Liz Doyle of Customised Heritage Tours, Cassie Mercer of Inside History, and many other great folk. (A short interview with me produced by Mike Murray and a review of the event from blogger Geniaus can be found at

It is probably worth giving a quick impression of the state of Ozzie genealogy as I perceived it on this visit, as a complete outsider. In Britain, there has been a lot of misguided talk about how the TV show Who Do You Think You Are brought genealogy to the masses here. In fact it didn't - the series was commissioned because of the rapid development of online resources affecting and promoting family history research, and hence the BBC sat up and took notice. The show has however since provided a conduit for many to join the hobby who may not have before. In Australia, the show is shown on one of the lesser channels, called SBS, and has less of a budget per series. There are 6 editions per each run, with a fourth series due to start soon, and each programme has to add to the channel's core remit of providing an insight into ethnic and cultural diversity. The series, although as well made as the UK equivalent, therefore has a lower profile, and was described to me as being the show watched by those who are already in on the whole genealogy thing, rather than the populist celebrity fest that it has become here. As such, there is no WDYTYA Live type show, meaning that the Unlock the Past Expo is perhaps the closest thing to it, a decent and well planned affair that concentrates on the task at hand, as with most other British type shows, and very welcome for that.

I was particularly surprised to note some of the barriers that have prevented growth of online resources in Australia. The bottom line is that many institutions have not been allowed by law to make money commercially from the digitisation of their resources, in the way that the National Archives at Kew or the General Register Office for Scotland have here. This is slowly being addressed, with Ancestry in particular trying to secure changes in the law, which recently led to the upload of Ozzie BMD indexes, for example. This is an institutional and cultural change that the country is still slowly embracing, though the National Library of Australia and others have been making some impressive inroads on getting free content online (with TROVE, Australian newspapers, etc).

I was also amazed at how focussed a lot of Scottish enquiries were from many of those doing their research, and came across a few surprises, not least of which was to discover from genealogist Sylvia Murphy that the Families in British India Society (FIBIS) has a substantial presence in Oz, and makes a significant contribution to the site's various transcription projects. The set up at the WAGS Library in Perth (see pic right, Liane Fitzpatrick, WAGS president) also blew me away, with some great Scottish resources as gathered by members over the last 30 years or so, and from conversations I had with other equivalent groups in Victoria and Queensland I can imagine their libraries are equally well stocked.

Overall I was seriously impressed with everything I saw, and am extremely grateful for the opportunity to attend. To Alan and all those at Unlock the Past reponsible, a sincere thank you! O
n the back of the trip I have now agreed to put together a short book on how to research Scottish church records for Unlock the Past - more details soon, but hoping to get it produced by Christmas and available early next year!

Professional genealogical problem solving and research
Researching Scottish Family History (New book)


Brenda said...

Thanks for sharing, Chris. What a marvellous trip all in all with the great support of so many happy volunteers. We look forward to June 2011 in Toronto. But can we promise any rellies here? :-)

Chris Paton said...

There's a few down Detroit way that we might catch up with on my wife's side! :)