Capturing the Full Value of our Genealogical Heritage: Discussion (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht Debate

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How can this presence be leveraged to help meet the demand for access to Irish records?

A thriving Irish-based commercial genealogy industry brings investment and employment to the economy. It needs researchers, managers, project managers, scanning operators, quality controllers, business developers, finance and accountancy services and many others. It delivers tax revenues to the State and a revenue stream to the institutions that own the original records. It brings indirect revenue from ancestral tourism from tens of thousands returning to discover their heritage in person.

The committee's recommendations to the Government about the future of genealogy must take on board the economic activity that can flow from opening up more records. There is an opportunity for decisions to be made which foster growth and employment. Inertia will restrict this. It is not sufficient to invest taxpayer money in digitisation projects and to make them available in local or national centres. The money and goodwill is subject to Government budgets and changes in policy. One is left with a sub-optimal product with no incentive or budget to improve or keep pace with the technological innovation that customers demand. This requires a public private partnership with commercial publishers who are experts in delivering this service. To engage the worldwide Irish, customers require instant access to fully indexed records. They need to make rapid progress in their research and they demand attractive tools to allow them to find, build, share and connect with their heritage in meaningful ways. Commercial genealogy companies are willing to invest in bringing records online faster, in greater volume and to a higher quality. This is our core competency. They can offer the technological innovation, customer focus, global marketing required to service the needs of the diaspora globally and to ensure maximum value from the nation’s archival treasures. We ask the committee to recommend that the State should allow innovation with its public heritage. This will result in more users of these resources, a more engaged audience, and a massive expansion of digitisation.

The prevailing ideology in Ireland has been that free access to records online is required to ensure accessibility and the engagement of the diaspora in order to feed roots tourism. We argue that the free versus pay-for-access argument is a false dichotomy, which has delayed or halted important initiatives that would better realise the accessibility objectives. The reality is that pay sites, such as which offer advanced online services, gain overwhelmingly the most traffic internationally, because of the range of records offered, the engaging customer experience and advanced online services, as well as multi-million euro marketing budgets. State-sponsored institutions cannot compete on their more limited resources and offerings. Projects are funded but there is no ongoing budget or imperative to upgrade the services.

While I have ve touched on "roots tourism", it is important to underline the value in our approach to connecting to the Irish diaspora globally. Our reach extends across the globe with more than 26 million registered users, mostly located in the heartlands of the diaspora in North America, the UK and Australia. We understand the importance of this audience and their part in the Irish diaspora. Our goal is to bring family history to life. We use digitisation and technological innovation to create new ways of finding, attracting and engaging a wide audience and we provide context to allow people find discover their heritage and ancestry through rich content as well as records.

Our content is distributed through multi-platform delivery, including smartphones, tablets and social media, as well as our websites. More than 50% of Internet traffic comes from mobile devices. We perform smart matching of family trees and offer DNA products and other tools to allow casual users to discover their roots without the in-depth research. Being responsive to these innovations is crucial for reaching beyond the core market of traditional family historians to younger, wider audiences who demand simpler ways of engaging. We are also much better positioned than other institutions and organisations to place the Irish records in their global context, specifically our circa 2 billion record collection. This means we can present a richer picture of the progress of the families of the diaspora as they migrated from their homeland. For example, we can make Irish censuses and parish records searchable alongside US and British censuses, passenger lists, transportation records, army service records and other major collections of records.

Much more can be done with this by using our global reach and Ireland’s rich heritage. Through all these activities, we can enrich the history of a nation. Ireland has the opportunity to become an international thought leader in this area. We recommend that to achieve this the committee should be proactive in delivering a strategic directive to encourage widening of access to digital records; set a direction for the future of public records, encouraging a flexible approach; position Dublin as a global hub for genealogy; empower people within heritage organisations to make decision that are right for their needs; support them with investment in business development resource to review opportunities and deliver projects; provide a framework for public-private partnerships to flourish; and remain open to the several ways in which this can work.

Mr. Steven Smyrl: I thank the committee for the opportunity to make a submission on its report. I am accompanied by Ms Ann Robinson, chairman, North of Ireland Family History Society, Mr. Con Cochrane, chairman of the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, CIGO, Mr. Richard Flatman, treasurer Irish Family History Society and my colleague, Ms Rosaleen Underwood, who, like myself, is a professional genealogist. CIGO was founded in 1991 intially under the name GRO Users Group but shortly after it adopted its current name. Its original name reflected that it was established in response to the then Government's surprise announcement that the GRO would be decentralised to Roscommon town. In the 20 years since, CIGO has been hard at work on behalf of Irish genealogists. We are a lobby group for the various national and international organisations that share an interest in Irish genealogical research. We lobby for better and greater access to source material and through our work we give a voice to those involved in genealogical research across the island and beyond. Nationally and internationally, we represent more than 50,000 genealogists.

Part of our remit is to keep genealogists and family historians at home and abroad abreast of the latest news and events in Irish genealogy. We carefully monitor the genealogical issues of the day and comment on proposed policy and legislation. From its early years, CIGO quickly began to take its place in lobbying right across the island on behalf of those involved in genealogy for which it has earned an enviable reputation. Its views are regularly sought by institutions, politicians, archivists and the press. Its stature is such that it can easily gain access to decision makers and policy setters using its influence to make views known, urge caution and initiate change.

Issues on which CIGO's lobbying has been successful include achieving amendments to the Civil Registration Act 2004 to provide for death registrations in Ireland to include the deceased's date and place of birth and parents names. This had not been done until then. We achieved the same in regard to death registrations in Northern Ireland under new regulations introduced in December 2012. There were brought in on foot of our intervention on new registration legislation n Northern Ireland. We obtained confirmation from the CSO that next of kin to deceased persons were in principle entitled to data from the 1926 census about their deceased relatives under section 33 of the Statistics Act 1993. We also secured inclusion in the programme for Government of early release of the 1926 census and obtained a decision from the UK Information Commissioner that the public had the right to obtain data relating to deceased persons recorded in the UK's wartime national register compiled in September 1939, which included Northern Ireland.

Of the various important issues currently affecting genealogy in Ireland, we consider the two most important areas to be the upgrading the GRO and its web presence and establishing public access to the 1926 census returns. Other issues include adequate funding for the National Archives to upgrade-rebuild its current facility and to deal with the conservation, cataloguing and digitisation of its records, assistance for the National Library to upload digitised copies of its Roman Catholic parish registers to the Internet, and legislation to finally allow proper public access to the records of the Land Commission, many of which date from the 17th and 18th centuries.

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