Once, skeletons were locked in the closet. No longer, as we dig deeper for the roots of our family trees, writes Steve Meacham. MORE than 40 years ago, says Heather Garnsey, the sober staff who worked behind the counters of the Society of Australian Genealogists felt they had to protect innocents from the "C" word. If someone came in researching their family tree and asked to see the all-important 1828 census, they wouldn't be allowed to look themselves. A member of staff would do it for them, fearing the worst. "If it was found that they had convict origins, they'd be told, 'No, there wasn't anything of interest for you'. [The researchers] knew that the person would not be happy to have convict ancestry. They felt they had to mask the truth." The convict stain was too awful to admit.
And now? Garnsey, executive officer of Australia's premier genealogical body, laughs. "Now it's a badge of honour to collect as many convicts in your family tree as possible - even if you wouldn't have wanted to meet any of them today." Garnsey is speaking at the society's colonial headquarters in The Rocks - a building which has been literally transported, like so much of the nation, from somewhere else; it was moved, brick by brick, from the Domain in the 1970s. She has been in the job since 1988, the bicentennial year, an anniversary which kick-started Australians' interest in researching their past.
Several reasons, she says.
There's the emotional: "For most people it is the need to feel a sense of identity, to know where they fit in."
The technological: "The internet has made a huge difference because of people's ability to go ego-surfing. People put their names into a Google search and discover, 'Hey, there was someone with the same name as me in the 1750s.' "
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