Tuesday 28 May 2013

So what? So plenty!

Last week's announcement of the Irish Government's intention to amend the Civil Registration Act to facilitate free online access to the GRO's bmd indexes was enthusiastically greeted by many genealogists (see news story). A load more, judging by my Inbox, reacted with a 'so what?'.

Behind the 'so what?' lies the awareness that several incarnations of the Civil Registration Indexes are already available; Irish family historians can search online indexes for free (Family Search), or they can pay (Ancestry and FindMyPast). Or they can visit the GRO Research Room in Dublin to look through (for a fee) the hardcopy printed indexes. Or they can visit local county register office to search the manuscript indexes stitched into the back of each local register book.

It's true that, compared with only a handful of years ago, this level of access to such an important collection of records is pretty healthy. That doesn't mean it can't get better, though. And it will, if these amendments are, as expected, passed into law. Here's why...

Back in the late 1950s, the Genealogical Society of Utah (aka the Mormons) microfilmed the Civil Registration Indexes up to and including 1958. Access to the films made research a little easier because copies were circulated through the church's network of Family History Centres.

Some 40-odd years later, the Internet arrived, as did technologies that allowed the microfilms to be digitised and turned into an online database accessible via FamilySearch (formerly GSU). The data produced by this process was subsequently shared with both Ancestry and FindMyPast. In effect, three versions of the data are currently available, and they all suffer, however mildly, from the same problem: the original microfilmed copies of the GRO indexes were not complete; many pages were skipped in the filming process, along with a few entire years. Add to this the inevitable mis-transcriptions and you can see that, however much improved the current level of access is, the data has some significant drawbacks.

Since the original microfilming was carried out, the GRO itself has been computerising its indexes. As part of a stop-start project, the GRO has manually added to its computerised index all maiden names from 1903 to 1927 (maiden names didn't start appearing in the published birth registration indexes until 1928), as well as the manual addition of birth dates from the same starting date.

It is this more complete and accurate index that will be made freely available on the Department of Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltact's irishgenealogy.ie website, and this is why there is good reason to be cheered by the recent announcement.

There is one other important item to be clarified: cut-off date. Up to what date will the indexes be made available? The enabling legislation specifically excludes access to records relating to adoption and stillbirths; registration of the latter was introduced only in 1995... is this a hint that the new online collection will continue beyond that date? The legislation amendments also refer to civil partnership registrations... does this mean the new online collection will continue beyond 2011, when civil partnerships became legally recognised?

Or will the authorities plum for a similar arrangement to that proposed by the General Register of Northern Ireland, who will be launching their online bmd collection this autumn (fingers crossed) with birth registrations available on a rolling cut off of 100 years ago, marriages to 75 years ago, and deaths to 50 years ago? We'll have to wait and see.

How long will we have to wait? Is this going to be another 1926 census tale, with expectations raised and (likely) dashed? There are no guarantees, but the intended legislation is, firstly, very much more likely to be approved. And, since the data is already held in computerised format, it won't cost much in either time or money to make it searchable online.