Two weeks ago today, I sat down and composed a blog post entitled, Where Have All The Registers Gone? I referred to it as a ‘soapbox’ piece and my aim was to highlight what I saw as a serious problem for the current generation of family historians; namely that there are significant gaps in some of the parish register collections available on the big commercial genealogical websites, and that these gaps are effectively hidden from the users.
I was delighted with the response to the post over the next few days; lots of supportive comments came in suggesting that I wasn’t alone in feeling how I did about the situation, and that there was a sense of a shared experience.
Then it all started to go a bit crazy. About a week after I published the post, it was picked up by Peter Calver’s LostCousins website and featured in their weekly newsletter, while a number of Facebook Groups also posted links to the blog. Suddenly, I was getting notifications left, right and centre. Comments were popping up in my inbox every few minutes and the stats were going through the roof – the post was viewed nearly 3000 times in 48 hours! I began to sense that I might have struck a chord with the genealogical community…
I have to confess that I felt a bit overwhelmed by it all. I was hoping for a response – and I clearly had a response! – but it all felt a bit too much. Was this issue bigger than I could cope with? Had I bitten off more than I could chew?
Now that the dust has settled (we’re down to about 100 views a day as the total count grinds on towards 6000) I’ve begun to take stock of it all. There were a number of recurring themes in the comments, largely people agreeing that there was a problem and offering their support for a campaign, but also a significant number of people indicating that they hadn’t been aware of the issue and that they would now approach their searches with a different mindset.
So I thought I should set down my thoughts and try to consider what we’ve learned and what we should do next.
I think that there are two main strands here:
1 – the question of forming some sort of pressure group
2 – the question of creating a single place to gather information about known gaps
Unfortunately, unlike Johnny Nash, I can’t see clearly, and like Johnny Nash, I have more questions than answers.
Here are some things that I think.
- Although it’s clear that the problem isn’t just confined to parish registers (people mentioned censuses, the 1939 register, military service records etc.) I feel that the initial scope of the project (if there is a project!) should focus on digitised parish register collections (county-wide or equivalent).
- Similarly, in terms of geographical coverage, I think that it should (initially at least) be limited to England and Wales.
- This isn’t about transcription errors, nor, in my opinion, should it be about individual pages or even sections missing from digitised registers. This should be about entire registers which are known to exist and to form part of an archive’s holdings which are not part of the collection in which they should appear.
- This is also not about lost registers, or about those registers for which Archives don’t have the necessary rights, although I can see some advantage in logging this information.
- QUESTION. Is it also about noting/identifying registers which are wrongly named (the example of the Findmypast Flintshire registers collection was mentioned)? Errors like this are much easier (and therefore cheaper) to correct.
A few more questions:
- Has a project like this been attempted before? Well, yes. Peter Christian drew my attention to a blog post written by Celia Heritage in 2015. https://www.heritagefamilyhistory.co.uk/blog/2015/09/
- If we’re going to get a project off the ground, what resources do we need? IT skills? Organisational skills?
- What expertise do we need? Is there a role here for an existing organisation in the genealogical community? Perhaps the Society of Genealogists, the Family History Federation, Genuki, the Archives & Records Association or Free UK Genealogy. How about AGRA or the RQG? What about the big family history magazines: WDYTYA and Family Tree?
Of course, the biggest question to ask (and I really don’t have the answer), is ‘can we actually achieve anything here?’ Would we just be wasting our time? Is there any point in even trying?
And what about the archives themselves? Do they want a bunch of rabble rousers running around, possibly interfering with their own efforts to get the commercial websites to do something? Would we be helping or hindering?
One thing’s clear. The situation as it stands at the moment is unacceptable. A couple of people suggested that there may be some potential in pursuing legal action but as there are no explicit claims of completeness, just a vague suggestion of it, I really think that’s a non-starter. But I would love to think that we can help to sort this out – even if it’s just making some progress with the second strand and creating a space where errors can be reported and recorded.
(Perhaps there’s also a role in offering advice/guidance to archives who may be considering getting into bed with one of the commercial websites…)
As a professional researcher, working fulltime, there are limits to the amount of time and mental energy I can commit to all this. My family and my garden take up most of my spare time and I’m even hoping to have a social life again one of these days. But if there are enough like-minded individuals out there, perhaps with a bit more time on their hands and with the necessary IT/organisational skills to make something happen, maybe this can work.
So, as I said before, who’s up for it? Email me if you are…
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 20 September 2020