Amateur genealogist Suzanne Moon has just discovered her great great-grandmother spent time in jail in 1894. Amateur genealogist Suzanne Moon has just discovered her great great-grandmother spent time in jail in 1894. Photo: John Woudstra
FAMILY skeletons are streaming out of closets as Australia undergoes a genealogy boom.
SBS TV has commissioned a fourth local season of Who Do You Think You Are?, in which celebrities trace their forebears.
The November 28 episode that revealed actor Magda Szubanski's father was a World War II hero in Poland was one of SBS's top-rating 2010 programs, attracting 613,000 viewers.
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Executive producer Brian Beaton said the series appealed because it showed celebrities in real life, chasing detective-style stories. It showed us ''you can go further than just doing a family tree with names and dates''.
According to, which sponsors the SBS show, since 2008 the number of Australians who visit family history websites has risen by 58 per cent and the number of Australians interested in doing their family history has risen by 26 per cent.
Heather Garnsey, executive officer of the Society of Australian Genealogists, said family history was having a second boom - after a late-1980s post-Bicentenary spike.
Membership of her genealogists' group had dipped from 8000 to 5500 in that time, she said, because Joe Public could now do his own research online.
Linley Hooper, of the Genealogical Society of Victoria, points to's new digitised London Parish registers, which users pay to view by credit card or can use free at a library or as a member of a group such as GSV.
They let one view online the hand-written register of a London christening, marriage or burial, including witnesses.
Ms Hooper says previously, a reseacher would order a register microfilm from a Latter Day Saints' family history centre, which could take weeks. Then you might have to read hundreds of pages of names and, if it wasn't your relative, order another microfilm.
''Now we can do in a day what used to take months … It was just tedious. It was hard work.''
National Library of Australia family history librarian Jenny Higgins says Trove - the NLA's digitised online newspaper database, including in Victoria The Argus - is handy in allowing you to type in a name and locate any newspaper reference to it before the 1950s.
Scholars no longer have to spend months going through each page on microfilm.
Results can be confronting. ''The stuff that gets hidden in families is suddenly there for everybody to see,'' Ms Higgins said.
''One person found out their ancestor had given tainted evidence in a court case, which meant someone had gone to jail for quite a long time and they felt distressed about that even though it was a long time ago.''
She says there has been a 25 per cent increase in public genealogy inquiries at the NLA since Who Do You Think You Are?'s first season in 2008.
Heather Garnsey says the SBS show ''popularised family history'' but could create unrealistic expectations.
''When the public go to archives, there's no queue of people waiting for help. They [celebrities] walk straight in the door and there's someone there with white gloves showing you an original record, whereas you as an individual … would be shown a microfilm or computer [to use yourself].''
In reality, not everyone finds a convict or a rich socialite. Even TV star Michael Parkinson was rejected from the British Who Do You Think You Are? for being, said Parkinson, ''too boring''. ''On my father's side, miners and farm labourers; on my mother's, railwaymen and domestics.''
Leon Alekna, whose University of New England masters thesis is examining the nature and growth of family history in Australia, in 2009 surveyed almost 4000 family historians and found the stereotype ''little old lady'' genealogist was not necessarily true. About 45 per cent were aged 41 to 60.
Their motivation was ''overwhelmingly curiosity about their origins. They want to know who they are and who they belong to.''
He said today we are more comfortable with once-taboo issues we might uncover, such as single parenthood.