Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 17 August 2011


It was a surprise to find that it's been more than five years since my last visit to the National Archives.

It must be more than fifteen years since the family history bug bit me (a little before the big explosion of interest), and quite a few since a series of what seemed to be dead ends (short of trawling through parish registers in county records offices up and down the land) dampened the enthusiasm a bit. But a recent email from the grand-daughter of a friend of a now-deceased cousin of my mother's (that's what the internet makes possible) raised some new ideas; and a little work on the internet showed how much more is now online, and crucially, indexed.

Within an hour or so, I'd tracked down online a whole family of one great-great-grandmother across several different registers, with a father in the militia, raising the prospect that there would be some sort of military record for him. More checking revealed a list of Crimean War soldiers sharing the name of one great-grandfather, showing their regiments - the key piece of information make searching the military records of the National Archives a manageable prospect. So it was off to the other side of London this morning to renew my registration and get stuck into my list of file references.

Except that it's no longer possible to inspect the original paper records in the ordinary way: the Archives have contracted with a commercial service to make images of them available online, and to index them. This is all entirely understandable. At the start of the genealogy boom, the official records services set out to modernise their access arrangements, and developed some very pleasant research rooms and helpful enquiry services (at least in London): but within a few years it must have become clear this was a very expensive way to provide the service. The principle that public records should be available to the public doesn't, of itself, justify spending a lot of taxpayers' money to make them easily accessible for what is, after all, a hobby, and a rather obsessive one at that: only sensible, then, to let a commercial service take on the cost of photographing, transcribing and indexing the records most people are likely to search and let the internet absorb the bulk of searches from people like me.

Except that, at least in the case of the series of individual soldiers' records, the chosen partners haven't made a very good job of the transcribing, indexing and search mechanisms. I would expect that setting additional parameters, like dates and places, would act as a search filter, removing those that did not include that information: but not in this case - mainly because the transcription included no dates. As it happens, this particular organisation charges six times as much in pay-as-you-go credits to view a full image as opposed to the transcript (entirely accidentally, no doubt*), so it's very easy to run through £25 on a search specifying records between 1854 and 1860 only to discover that all of those listed are actually from much later.
*sarcasm alert

I am in full Mr. Growser mode. Emails are in draft......

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