Tuesday, 15 November 2011

My Found Family?

Oh my God! Talk about the potential for the internet to disseminate false information.

I have just finished a conversation with a lovely lady in Sydney. I am searching for documentation of my Grandfather's birth. I knew he had been born in a northern suburb of Sydney (Thornleigh). I am not able to source any official record of birth through the normal Birth Deaths and Marriages State records.

He was born to illiterate Italian parents in the mid 1880s. I decided to pursue Catholic Church parish records as another avenue. I started by phoning St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney figuring that they must get enquiries all the time and would give good advice.
'Hello. I'm looking for some advice about what records you have. My grandfather etc etc.'
'Go to the State Library.' the woman said bluntly.
'I've explored the NSW Births deaths etc do any parishes....'
'All our records are in the State Library'
I had hoped for a gentle helpful historian or to be referred on to one.

A sucker for punishment I made three more calls. The St Agnes (Pennant Hills) lady was nice enough.
'You should call the Waitara Cathedral. They're the regional centre. We only go back to 1925'
The Waitara lady (all women so far) said 'Call Sacred Heart at Pymble. They were the central church for that district in that period.'
Jenny at Pymble was very helpful.
'Send me some information and I'll see if I can find time to hunt something down in our archives.'
So off went an email.

And then the phone rang.
'Hell. It's Georgina here. I'm calling back from St Agnes. You called us a little while ago. I've done some searching and found your fathers birth date.'
Whacko I think.
'I googled his name and found information on the "Roots" website.'
'Wait. Let me have a look.' I was excited but couldn't figure our how she'd found this information so simply.

Oh my God (again)! There it was in all its inaccurate detail. My grandfather's birthdate was there, apparently official; in addition it told me he died in Sydney. Truth is he was in the front room of our house in Brisbane the week before he died in a local hospital.

Roots is part of Ancestry.com and there, listed in detail, were dates ages birth death details and much of it wrong or at least contestable. Some well meaning family member has simply put up the best guesses and hand me down information with little attempt at cross referencing or the establisment of fact versus fiction.

I don't want to bag my relatives. They are just sharing what they know. It's the power of the internet and of sites such as Ancestry.com I have a problem with. I know how unreliable even the reliable information can be. I am immersed in the unrelaible details of family life, trying to put the puzzle together for a book following my great-grandfather Lorenzo. He changed his name twice; left an unreliable trail of confused information and has at least three possible birthplaces in Italy recorded in varying documents. No birth records for him either. Like father like son.

I must be more cautious in the future when I read the 'truth' on Wikapedia and kindred websites.

By the look of the photo I may be related to the Jackson 5. That my grandfather on the right looking like a the little spiv he was and his brother and sister beside him. Where did she get that hair? My pops hair was always like a wire brush in crew cut style come to think of it. If only he'd let his hair grow.


sarah toa said...

Interesting stuff ... when historical details are posted at Roots or other sites, then it appears to be set in (ether) stone and could be wildly inaccurate. As a historian I come across it all the time and not just online, but with journals and papers of govt bureaucrats.
You've just gotta keep cross referencing and be super rigorous - because one day someone will reference your stuff!

sarah toa said...

On that note, omissions in record keeping are always where the stories are because they are so intriguing. You could try some 'reading around' the reason why his records are so slippery.

Queen of the Tea Cosies said...

Alex. you need Alex. She is the family history librarian at Caboolture. Her new PAID job. Yeah yeah I know. Wrong place - but she might know how and WHO to ask. AND she has a life time of putting together her own and Robert's history.

See. It's not what you know it's who you know.

Lucky you know me hey?!

little hat said...

Thanks Sarah. Yeah the gaps are the interesting bits. That's what I'm trying to write about with my book project. It's not an account of history but more of a detective story about where the truth lies and how we fill in the gaps and the associated frustrations and revelations.
Geraldine Brooks says she only writes historical fiction where there are plenty of gaps allowing her to tell a story around the bits that survive.
I didn't realise that Historian and Fishing could work so well together.
The other comment on this page from Loani is interesting partly because her partner Julian Pepperell is, in a way, a fish historian and has just completed a book on the History of Fish in Australia - who saw what, where and when and what's changed. He's kind of a historian too though trained as a Marine Biologist.

little hat said...

I'm always known there was a reason we stayed friends. But its more than alex and robert I value you for.Thanks for the lead.

Anonymous said...

I love that hair!!!

Sadly the oldest member of my Moms family died this year, she was a great fountain of misinformation - but all very entertaining. If you phoned to ask a question about Great-Uncle Nuff then you would come away two hours later having heard all about cousin Biddugs new car ... and left slightly bemused about the connection, although believe me somehow there always was one!