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How to start your family history

This page provides some general guidance on how to access the vast amount of information held by State Records. It also provides links to where other resources may be found in New South Wales and Australia.

Where do I start my research at State Records?

Information Archives in Brief (AIB) are informational leaflets that provide explanations of the most popular record series searches. They are a good starting point for any research.

Some AIB include:

KeyName search is a powerful search tool to help you find individuals across many of our online indexes. You can perform multi-name searches and order from multiple indexes. Remember to print out your search results or fill in the worksheets below and bring them with you to the reading room!


These worksheets have been designed for use at home and in the reading room at State Records.

Information It is a good idea to print them out and try to fill in as many details as possible before visiting State Records. You will then have a clearer idea of what types of information you need to be researching on your visit.

Fill these in at home and bring them into the reading room

Aims to help in the gathering the basic Birth, Death and Marriage information.

Aims to help in the gathering of basic Birth, Death and Marriage information and details of arrival in Australia.

Designed to be used in conjunction with the online Convict Indexes and other resources available in State Records' reading room. By filling in the State Records references section, such as [4/4235], and the reel numbers you will be able to double check the information again in the future.

Designed to be used in conjunction with the Online Indexes and other resources available in State Records' reading room. By filling in the State Records references section file and box numbers and the reel numbers you will be able to double check the information again in the future. The Copies ordered box allows you to keep track of the files you have requested to be photocopied and ensures you pick them all up before leaving the reading room at the end of your visit.

Tips on getting started

Important! A good place to start is with yourself. Write down your date of birth and then other important dates such when you were married and when your children were born. Continue recording this basic information working back through the generations, starting with your parents and grandparents.
Remember, it is always easier to work from the present to the past.

Births, deaths and marriage records are an excellent starting point for mapping your family tree. The accuracy of the information recorded on these records will vary according to who provided the details. Birth and marriage certificates tend to be more reliable than death certificates. Death certificates may provide links to the previous generation as the parents of the deceased are often listed.

It is also a good idea to start your research by 'quizzing' your relatives for any family stories about the past, convicts or black sheep in the family or memories of arriving in Australia. Family photos, an annotated family bible or old family papers can also provide leads for you to follow.

Spelling variations

While doing your research possible spelling variations should be considered. The spelling of family names may change over time or have been recorded or transcribed incorrectly. Many hand written letters can be mistaken for other letters in the alphabet, for example, Gabriel de Milhau can often be found in records listed as Gabriel de Milhan. Similiar spelling of names should also be considered, for example, Andersen and Anderson or Brennan and Brannon.
Always remember to check any discrepancies in spelling against other sources and further details recorded (such as first name, age or ship arrived on).

Relationships with families of the same name

Never assume relationships with families of the same name. Always start from what you know and base your research on a firm line of descent using the available records.

Finding Aids


You may find some of these books useful guides for how to begin researching your family history. Some of these titles are available in the State Records reading room but also check out your local library.

Connecting Kin - Guide to Records: A guide to help people separated from their families search for their records, Kristy Thinee and Tracy Bradford, 1998. Available online.

Finding Families: The Guide to the National Archives of Australia for Genealogists, compiled by Margaret Chambers; National Archives of Australia, 1998.

Gray, Nancy, Compiling your Family History: a guide to procedure, Society of Australian Genealogists, 21st edition, 2002.

Hall, Nick Vine, Tracing your Family History in Australia: A Guide to Sources, 2nd ed., Albert Park, 1994.

Other Finding Aids

State Records has produced a number of Archives in Brief (AIB) information leaflets that detail some of the popular searches that family historians undertake. AIB 51 can be browsed by topic.

Other finding aids include

KeyName Search, online indexes, and Archives Investigator, our online archives information and access system database.


The following websites are also good starting points.

Indigenous Family History sites

Provides information for Indigenous family researchers, including the Link-Up scheme.

The New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board published Dawn and New Dawn between 1952-1975. The magazine came to be seen as a way for people to keep in touch and can provide valuable information for family historians. Includes photographs. Also available on CD ROM.

Family History Gateways

Includes links to genealogical sites (focusing on Australia) and tutorials for beginners.

A categorized & cross-referenced index to genealogical resources on the Internet.

Provides search engines and directories including convicts, bushrangers, passenger lists and cemetery transcriptions.

Provides a variety of sources and mailing lists that can be searched by topic and area.

Contains searchable databases and information for beginner and experienced family historians.

Other useful sites

Discover local libraries around Australia.

An umbrella organisation for family history societies throughout Australia and New Zealand.

Introduction for a variety of Australian government records.

Provides researchers with contact details of the most appropriate member society or societies to assist with their enquiries. Lists the member societies.

The Ryerson Index is an index to death and death-type notices published in Australian newspapers. As at January 2016 it contains in excess of 5.3 million entries, and is updated weekly. The Index helps to locate those difficult recent deaths which are not yet included in the various state BDM online indexes. It is searchable by either name or location.

Other Links

A useful list of websites that may come in handy.

Hit a brick wall in your research? Try these tips and tactics

These research tips are from a presentation by Christine Yeats Plundering the secrets in the state archives: Tips and tactics for overcoming some of the ‘brick walls’ using the NSW State archives


We would appreciate any feedback and/or suggestions you may have on using the family history pages.