Researchers are understandably upset.
For years, genealogists and family historians have pored over the massive green and maroon ledgers at the Family Records Centre in London, searching for details of more than 150 years of births, marriages and deaths. But there was anger or outright incredulity this weekend as professional and amateur researchers arrived to find most of the shelves bare.
There will never again be public access to the paper records, the index to where in the country all the births, marriages and deaths were registered, but - as so often with government IT projects - the timetable for the online version intended to replace them has collapsed. According to a spokesman for the Office for National Statistics, which is responsible for the General Records Office, "the present target is to have the online index available by mid-2009".
Researchers can use microfiche, however, although it is difficult, and two people called it "an absolute disgrace." Another comment focused on the loss to genealogists of both paper records and the ability of researchers working together and sharing tricks of the trade.
The digitizing work was outsourced to India and has fallen behind. Microfiche - proposed as a resource until the online version is available - has its own problems, most importantly image quality.
"It's deplorable," said Maggie Loughran, administrator of the Federation of Family History Societies. "The removal of the paper records and the closure of these facilities is happening ahead of time, but nobody knows when the digital version will be available."
Sarah Williams, editor of the new BBC magazine Who Do You Think You Are?, launched on the back of the success of the television series and the growing craze for amateur genealogy, said: "The sweetener was that the paper records would be replaced by a superior digital version. But to lose one before the other is ready is a highly questionable decision."
The records will be sent to a warehouse and the public access system may take two years to become operational. The Family Records Centre opened a decade ago, with the now-closed General Records Office on the ground floor, and a National Archives reading room above that. There are four sets of microfiche in the NA room. In March 2008, the entire building will be closed to the public and researchers must work online.
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