The last weekend of February saw several thousand people crammed into the Olympia exhibition centre in West London for the largest UK family history show and trade fair. Who Do You Think You Are Live, named after the eponymous TV hit, is on its fifth year and running strong.
Among the sea of stalls, booths and slick talks, two larger constructions stood out like Mayan pyramids. The booths of genealogy websites Ancestry and Findmypast (main commercial outlet for UK company Brightsolid) were clearly a class apart from the smaller representations of print magazines, government archives, professional associations and the myriad local family history societies.
This is a very symbolic representation of the current state of affairs in the field of family history and genealogy, which is becoming increasingly dominated by a handful of commercial interests.
Those who have been in the scene for years seem unclear on how things got to this stage. Several people were reminiscent of the old days, when there were no big operators, and the whole show was more similar to a village fete.
However, they quickly point out that it is good to see things getting more modern, and participants become even slightly more diverse in terms of age, class and ethnicity, albeit admitting there is a long way to go. Generally, family history aficionados like seeing money being poured into the sector, and a growing democratisation of history beyond king and country.
However, as more and more genealogical data is available, there seems to be a price to pay. People wishing to build their family history find that online access becomes increasingly channelled via a small number of commercial sites who host the data needed behind pay-walls?
According to many participants to whom we spoke, the main reason for this is the cost of digitisation, that is: scanning, transcribing and making available the records that sit in the archives and libraries.
Public institutions sign deals with commercial companies where these take on the costs of digitisation in exchange for the rights to exploit the information. As US based Ancestry.com's Market Value of Listed Security of $1,529 Million shows, this is a very good business.
And it's not just government archives, Ancestry boasts relationships with “historical societies, religious institutions and private collectors of historical content around the world”. Indeed it seems that most local societies and smaller organisations in the sector are now financed to different degrees of dependency through deals with commercial websites.
Nevertheless, permanently re-privatized data does not need to be the future of our historic data. There are other models, and of course, reasons for institutions to commit to an open future for the ditigised data in the medium term. Open Rights Group has co-founded the Open Genealogy Alliance in order to start looking at an alternative future for the sector based on open data, open standards and innovation through collaboration across the public, private and voluntary sectors.
We will have two main initial projects, where we welcome the collaboration of ORG's supporters.
The first thing we will be doing is an study of the sector to understand among other things how value is added to data, how licensing works along the chain, and the potential contribution of the voluntary sector. In terms of concrete datasets we are looking at working with the General Registry Office to co-develop the public index of Births, Deaths and Marriages — which has been stalled for a long time — as a Big Society project with voluntary organisations.
Please get in touch if you want to participate or help in any way.