Friday, 22 February 2013

WDYTYA?Live: good news from small Irish contingent

WDYTYA?Live got off to a lively start today at Olympia in London with the vast National Hall buzzing within minutes of the doors opening. Thousands of family historians were soon seeking answers and direction to further their research, and they were certainly spoiled for choice about how and from whom they acquired that advice, with hundreds of exhibitors on standby and a surfeit of lecture strands running throughout the day in locations across the ground and gallery floors.

Now, I'm not going to write an all encompassing summary of the 'World's Largest Family History Show' – I'll leave that task to the dozens of other bloggers who were there – and there is, obviously, a very British bias to the exhibition. Instead, I'll stick to reporting the exhibition from an Irish genealogy perspective.

I'll get rid of the negatives first. There were a much reduced Ireland presence this year, largely due to a lack of state funds, or, perhaps, to a lack of state vision. In the year of the Gathering, I'd call this response both confused and stupid; penny-pinching in these circumstances borders on scandalous, in my opinion. So those left carrying the Irish flag were huddled together in a minor strip beneath the big shamrock of Tourism Ireland, where Ireland's Family History Year was being launched. The reduced numbers meant that those seeking help with finding their Irish ancestors had fewer options; it also meant that the dedicated Irish exhibitors were soon thronged.

I was helping out on the stand of the Irish Genealogical Research Society and was shocked by the number of people who were soon queuing up for help. It was like working behind the bar on a Friday night in a Cork city centre pub, only the clientele was much more polite and patient! Adjacent to us were PRONI and the Northern Ireland Family History Society, and I could see they were equally overwhelmed!

The story that 'A fire burned all the records' is still alive and well in the UK, although I'd say that the term 'all' may have been replaced with 'a lot of' in the last year or so. Many visitors to the stand knew of the famous fire but a good number were asking IF the records they were after might have been among those lost. In other words, the notion of 'all' seems to have stepped down a notch to 'most' or 'some'. Hey, it's progress, and shows that the message the Irish genealogy industry has been repeating ad nauseum for many years may actually be reaching the audience. Hurrah!

In addition to steering folk in the direction of appropriate records, collections, archives and databases, the IGRS was advising visitors that its new website – watch this space for news of its imminent launch – will not only be carrying unique collections within its members-only area, but will arrive in cyberspace with some terrific new research material in its free to access public area. I'm not at liberty to say exactly what these records are yet, but I'll mention '1871 census fragment' and 'pre-19th century marriages' to get you warmed up. I can assure you, they won't disappoint! You'll hear the full story here within the next month.

Over at the Northern Ireland Family History Society, there was a copy of a new publication 'Researching Your Ancestors in County Monaghan' on display. This was so hot off the press, it isn't even on the NIFHS website, yet! A neat booklet, it costs £5 plus postage, and is to be the first in a series of publications covering each of the nine historical counties of Ulster.

The NIFHS is, of course, still reeling from the sad and sudden death of its President, Randall Gill, last year. It's a credit to him, and to the Society's officers, that the Society is still moving forward. Maeve Rogan is the enthusiastic force behind the Newtownabbey branch's brand-new Facebook presence (here), and Rosemary Sibbert and Ann Robinson were able to rattle off a series of events they'll be involved over the next few months. I'll be reporting on the latter as the months roll along, but for now I'll just mention that the NIFHS plans to be part of the St Patrick's Festival Genealogy Centre in Dublin next month.

I've already reported on this event (see blogpost) and will, no doubt, have more to say about it as the dates approaches. It's the brain-child of Eneclann/ and will be a major genealogy event within the Gathering calendar.

Before heading south, though, I stopped by at the PRONI stand where some more good news was in store. The Valuation Revision Books are going to be launched online on the PRONI website at the end of March! These cover the year 1864 to 1930. Janet Hancock told me that they're 'geographically indexed', meaning that they will be searchable by townland/parish rather than by name. Superb news for anyone with ancestors from Northern Ireland.

PRONI operates a 'one big upgrade/release a year' programme and the Valuation Revision Books will be this year's pleasure parcel. In the wings for 2014 is a big upgrade to the Wills collection. More about that later in the year.

A team of genealogists from Ancestor Network (who, together with Eneclann, run the Genealogy Service at the National Archives of Ireland) was kept busy today on the stand they're sharing with Jim Ryan's Flyleaf Press. The latter publishing business has certainly upped the pace in the past year, with a spate of new books appearing in the 'Tracing Your Ancestors in County ....' series. Since the last WDYTYA, the catalogue has grown with Westmeath, Sligo and, only two weeks ago, County Clare. The latter was co-authored by Gerry Kennedy, chairman of Clare Roots Society, who was also attending the show today.

The success of the Tracing Your Ancestors series is largely down to Jim's choice of author. He tells me that he doesn't look just for someone who is familiar with genealogy records in a particular location. 'They need to have an in-depth knowledge of the locality and its history,' he says. 'They need to give local historical and social context to the records that survive, whether they are the mainstream collections or very specific local event-driven record sets.'

During the course of this year we can look forward to brand new or re-editions of books covering counties Tipperary, Cavan, Wexford and Kildare. Looking forward, Jim says he'd like to extend the series further into the north of the island. He'd also like to find an author for County Leitrim, in order to round out the Western seaboard titles.

I also had a chat with Fiona Fitzsimons on the Eneclann stand. She told me that the process begun last year of digitising books and other documents in the Eneclann catalogue is going to continue. 'Digitised copies are what people want, so we'll be proceeding with the digitisation of the entire back catalogue', she said. 'It makes sense. It's easier for researchers to search a digitised collection and, with no postage costs, it's cheaper to buy.' You can see the latest conversions here.

Although not a dedicated Irish site, I dropped by I've known this forum for several years, and always found the guys and gals in the Ireland sections very helpful. Unlike so many 'online communities', where 'latest posts' hark back months if not to years long gone, Rootschat isn't stagnant. It's lively and fast flowing, and it's members are quick to jump in with advice.

This was the site owners first WDYTYA?Live, and Sarah Davies was keen to tell me about some of the technological improvements that have been made in recent months. Put into my non-technie language, it seems the site is less likely to crash, is generally more stable, and now has an enhanced Search facility. It's also been smartened up, with a more attractive interface. It's one of only two forums that I bother with personally, so I'm happy to recommend it.

I'd hoped to have a chat with the Ancestry team that worked on the Lord Morpeth Roll project, but there was no getting through the crowds and the queues on their various stands. Fortunately, we already know the records will be released next month, so I don't know they'd have anything else to say at this point in time.

And that was it for me at the show. I know I missed people I should have dropped by on, but the day whizzed by, and then it is done. I didn't get to one single lecture. I didn't get to eat anything, save one half biscuit, and when I grabbed a glass of orange at 2pm, I swear steam came out of my ears. That's what it's like. You get caught up in the whirl. And for a while you don't hear that your back is complaining or your voice has gone hoarse. You just know that this is a great occasion. And while it's terrific that it delivered some great news of records and resources coming our way, it's also true that Ireland deserved a greater presence.