Tucked away in a small building behind a Lyons hall is the Central Coast Family History Society. Through the front door, past the foyer to the left, is the library. The shelves are full. A collection spanning decades chronicles the history of the Central Coast. Down the hall is the main room, lined with computers; people come to research their history. Across the hall is a treasure trove. The archive room. Floor-to-ceiling boxes of records, artifacts, maps and photos.
Family history is a unique investigative process. It is a search for clues, one leading to the next, hopefully, to reveal some significant detail. Family history uses memories, oral histories and family stories; it searches for names in archives, through birth certificates, marriage records, newspapers, and obituaries to reconstruct lives. Small community organisations, like the Central Coast Family History Society, facilitate this search. They collect the clues that build family history and keep the flame of local history alive. The Family History Society connects people of the present to the Coast of the past.
My first visit to the Family history society was overwhelming. There were so many treasures waiting to be found on the shelves. I toured the library and the archive room, seeing the books, artifacts and photos they contained. Some of the photos and older documents had begun to fade. And so, my role became digitising these records to protect them for the future and allow them to be more easily shared and stored.
I started with a heavy leather-bound album. It had been donated after being found in the back of the shed. Most of the photos were from the mid-1800s. What was once a treasured and expensive heirloom was now in disrepair and forgotten. Digitising is a laborious process. You must delicately remove each photo, put it through the scanner and return it to the album. Scanning each photo, you cannot help but feel you are getting to know the people. As I turned the pages, I met the Sharp family.
Not many details of their lives remain now, but the album offers clues. I saw the children born into the family, the home they lived in, the family pets. There is incredible value to be found, even in the lives of people with no family left to remember them. Digitising and record keeping are some of the important roles of local history societies. It creates clues. Hopefully, these clues will prove helpful to others in the future.
A picture is worth a thousand words. The more we interrogate photos, the more they reveal to us. To the living family, they offer a glimpse into the past and help fill in the blank branches of family trees. But to those without sentimental familial attachments, what can we gain? Surprisingly, a lot. Photos, particularly of everyday people, give granular details like what fashions were popular. On the reverse of most is the name of the photography studio in which they were taken; this is a valuable clue. The locations of these studios allow us to trace migration. For example, the beginning of the Sharp Family Album is taken in Liverpool and the end in Sydney. We can also use it to imagine a changing Sydney. Through the listed address on the back, we can see that George Street Sydney was once populated with numerous Photography Studios. With a little speculation and imagination, photographs offer a plethora of clues.
Being at the Family History Society is like going on a treasure hunt. You start with some clue and must use that in the search for the next one. You follow the hunt hoping in the end, you will have something meaningful. I am pleased to be playing a part in creating these clues, which will hopefully be the key to some future person’s treasure.