From the office: The collective passion of family historians

By Editor, 10 April 2014 - 12:43pm

Together family historians can pack quite a punch says editor Sarah Williams

Thursday 10 April 2014

Sarah Williams, editor
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Well, it’s been quite a week here at WDYTYA? Magazine Towers (have I mentioned before that we do actually work at the top of a 14-storey tower block?). It all started for us when someone posted on our forum their dissatisfaction with the new-look findmypast website. Other voices joined in.

It wasn’t just the look that some users didn’t like, certain functionality that had been on the previous site had seemingly disappeared and for many the new platform kept grinding to a halt. Our forum wasn’t the only place that this discussion was going on. On findmypast’s own feedback site thousands of comments were being posted and Facebook and Twitter were alive with clamorous customers wanting the old site back.

We got in touch with the team at findmypast who were, I assume, busy fixing bugs and trying to put back some of the functionality that their customers were missing and asked them if they would respond to our readers on our forum. They sent us a statement from their CEO but later agreed to answer some specific questions if we emailed them. Jon, our staff writer, put a call-out via Facebook and our forum and was inundated with emails. He worked late sifting through them all to come up with 10 questions that he put to the management team at findmypast.

This will no doubt rumble on and findmypast will have to work hard to regain the trust of some of the more vociferous complainants but it was a good reminder that, in this day and age of instant social media, fast and honest communication is more important than ever. Nothing annoyed people more than the feeling that they weren’t being listened to and, in some cases, that their voice was being silenced.

It also reminded me of the passion that lies behind the genealogy community. By nature a solitary hobby, collectively family historians can pack quite a punch (I suspect findmypast is holding an ice pack to its bruises right now). 

Yesterday was the official launch of a major new initiative in Northern Ireland. It is now possible to view a scan of an original register entry for just £2. Just like Scottish researchers, who have had this facility via ScotlandsPeople for years, those researching ancestors from Northern Ireland can now collect vital records (civil births, marriages and deaths) instantly online for a fraction of the previous price.

Why can’t we do the same for England and Wales? A lot of the preparatory work has already been done. The beleagured DoVE project (Digitisation of Vital Events) was abandoned in 2008 after only half of the records (more than 130 million of them) had been digitised. This then later became the D&I (Digitisation and Indexing) project which was suspended in 2010 as part of a spending review.   

When I spoke to the Registrar General, Sarah Rapson, in 2012 she said that it was legislation that was holding the GRO back from going down a similar route to Scotland. Guy Etchells, who has campaigned tirelessly for more open access to records for family historians, argues against this very convincingly on his website

I believe his current campaign to “open historic registers now” deserves the backing of the genealogical community. If we can garner just a fraction of the passion I saw over the past week and get all family historians to sign his e-petition at perhaps together we can make something really significant happen.


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