24 August 2008

UK: Genealogists angry, project delayed

Researchers in the UK are miffed as a £16m plan to put family history online collapses and it is back to "smudgy" microfilm records once again, according to this Guardian story.

A government website, which had promised direct access to 171 years of family records, has been delayed indefinitely following failure of a Whitehall computer project.

An attempt to scan, index and digitise 250m records of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales from 1837 to the present day was supposed to result in a new public website that would let people trace their ancestors at the touch of a button next February. Now, three years after the government awarded the £16m contract to German computer giant Siemens, the deal has been terminated with only half the work done.

It had been hoped that the online system would cut costs and make it easier and faster to find roots. The problems mean searchers must keep requesting documents by mail, at a fee of £7 or £10 a time.

Genealogists were already angry that the government had removed access to the paper ledgers (indexes of births, marriages and deaths) at the family records center when the decision was made to start the website.

The agency responsible for the records -The General Register Office (GRO) - said only 130 million records had been scanned, and shelved plans to make the index public. The missing records include birth records 1837-1934 and death records 1837-1957. The GRO is run by The Identity and Passport Service (IPS) which said it had only paid half the fee as a result.

On August 15, according to the story, IPS couldn't say when the project would be completed or how it would pay for the rest.

Quoted were Sue Hills of Ancestral Footsteps, which offers genealogy holidays: "This is a devastating blow. Everyone was incredibly excited because this was going to be a fantastic research tool and one of the big events in the world of ancestry."

Ancestry.co.uk's Simon Harper, managing director of the subscription site (which charges for index access), said the delay was "not good news for the amateur genealogist," and called it "hugely frustrating."

With the popularity of such shows as BBC's Who Do You Think You Are, more people in the UK are searching their roots. The show's consultant, genealogist Nick Barratt, estimates that one in three Britons have done online research on their ancestors.

The National Archives' visitor numbers doubled to 56.8 million in 2007 from 23.2 million in 2006, according to the story, which also includes comments from union officials, touches on the controversial decision to outsource work to India for the project, data security and more.

Read the complete story at the link above.

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