The call for more free and open access to genealogical data is fine in principle (what Family Historian could argue against it?) . But access doesn’t come free and one wonders who, in a time of severe economic constraint, is going to pay to make more records available by investing in infrastructure and investment in digital technology on behalf of what are essentially hobbyists? Hence the ideas put forward by the Open Genealogy Alliance are written off by some as more aspirational than achievable.
Others feel passionately that the “pragmatists” have missed the point. As one SoG member explained to me, “the aims of Open Genealogy are not dissimilar to the Open Source Movement which is “a broad-reaching movement comprised both officially and unofficially of individuals who feel that software should be produced altruistically” [to quote Wikipedia] which is open to all, contributed to and funded by volunteers!.”
The partners behind the Open Genealogy Alliance are the Open Rights Group, the Open Knowledge Foundation and Free BMD. The Society of Genealogists recognized the sterling efforts of the Free BMD by awarding it the Society’s Prince Michael of Kent award for outstanding contributions to genealogy in 2007. The voluntary effort behind this venture (which also includes census and register offshoots) is remarkable. However it does receive support from the commercial sector in free hosting services and webs presence. Is this a cynical manipulation of the community by Ancestry? The commercial sector is going as fast as it can to digitize records and we have seen that this is now an extremely lucrative business. But is this really the re-privatization of genealogical data? That’s a strong word used by the Alliance. If I contrast the digital images of wills provided on TNA’s Documents Online with the SoG’s images of Bank Of England Will abstracts now scanned and available on Findmypast can I hand on heart say I could rely on the Public Sector to provide the quality I want? As a member of the National Council on Advisory Records I hear of TNA’s work (having subsumed the Office of Public Sector Information) in providing models for licencing government data. Open up the data and the community will create innovative ways of using it far beyond the imagination of civil servants. But the Open Government Licence excludes personal data, coats of arms and anything that constitutes identity document like passports or birth certificates. The Open Genealogy Alliance certainly needs to look at the legislative straight jacket that inhibits genealogical information in England and Wales. Does Scotland’s People’s exclusive and expensive contract for use of the Scottish census images help the genealogist?
The commercial sector itself uses voluntary effort to achieve more transcription and indexing. Thousands of people contribute by transcribing records made available openly online by Familysearch or Ancestry’s World Record. The Society of Genealogists uses volunteer effort from its members who index and transcribe and indeed donate data that we can make available for income – via our member’s area so we can continue to support the activities of the Society and its Library. Are we exploiting that voluntary effort? Note the commercial sectors interest in genealogy is largely in the English Speaking World. Look at European genealogy which by comparison has very little commercial investment in it records and see how far behind it is. Can one really argue that it is only the commercial sector that restricts access to genealogical data by creating an expensive payment barrier? If the tax payer isn’t going to foot the bill then we may have no choice but to consider voluntary effort and the Big Society? Exclusive licence agreements for making records available certainly play into the hands of the big companies. TNA and other record offices make millions from these licences and commercial agreements, but they need money too. The SoG works in exactly the same way but we don’t make millions so we are also trying the voluntary approach too. I’ll let you know how we get on.
Visit the open genealogy alliance website to find out more about its ideas