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Some of you may have seen, and some of you will no doubt see in
the near future, an article in the Family Tree Magazine (March 1999) by
Anthony Camp reviewing Mike Foster's book "A Comedy of Errors". The book
has already been discussed to a degree on the list and the review by
Anthony Camp is a good one so I won't try to summarise the book here.
Toward the end of his review Anthony Camp makes the following
"...Knowing the extent of the problems with the present indexes,
however, as we now do, it seems futile and absurd to encourage
volunteers, as the "FreeBMD" group is doing on the Internet, to
transcribe them into one vast database which will compound all the
problems for years to come. ..."
Our view of this has already been mentioned on this list but I
thought I would restate it here for those who are new to the list and
for those of you who will be thinking about this statement.
First of all, we have no problem at all with Mike Foster's book
and have no quarrel with Mike or with Anthony Camp. Mike kindly leant us
his data for our original test site and Anthony Camp is exceedingly well
respected in Genealogy circles worldwide.
The conclusions of the Book and the review are common in calling
for a refilming of the original registers in the superintendent
registrars offices, with these then being compiled into a new national
index. We fully support that as an aim and would not discourage it in
However, for the following reasons we still believe that the
FreeBMD project has legitimacy and is worth continuing:
1) If the 'Campaign for easier and cheaper access to civil registration
records' is to achieve its aims, then legislation is required before
progress can be made. Parliamentary time for bills at the moment appears
to be a scarce commodity and, as the government approaches the second
half of its term, it is likely to become harder to find time for bills.
Again, I fully support the campaign, and I hope it can achieve its aims.
BUT it is always a good idea to look at contingencies in the event it
doesn't. FreeBMD is such a contingency. Should the campaign not be
successful, I would rather look back in two or three years and say ...
"well at least we are well on the way to having an computerised index
for what we have" .. than say ... "I wish we had a computerised index
for these records, I wonder if we should start one."
2) The idea of the LDS filming locally and indexing is a good one.
However, the past record in the time taken for the authorities to agree
to this and set things up is not very good. For the same reasons as
number 1) I would rather start to compile an index now than keep waiting
for what-ifs, however much I wish they would happen.
3) The 'extent of the problems with the present indexes' that is
referred to is real. There are problems with the current indexes.
However, until we have something new, they are the best we have. Very
few people in England or Wales are seriously able to research their
family tree back into the 1800s without recourse to these indexes. They
ARE and will REMAIN the way to get records until items 1) or 2) become
reality. I would rather start on the contingency plan of getting them
freely available on the Internet now, than wait for a moment when there
is not a campaign going on. The two are not mutually exclusive. If
either items 1) or 2) are seriously started in the short term and this
project looks like it will not be needed in the long term then, of
course, we should stop. However, we should also be realistic and say
that there is a reasonable chance that neither 1) or 2) will go ahead in
the short term and our 'absurd' idea will enable people to search more
and more years online with the added benefits that a computerised system
4) The inaccuracies in the records discussed in the book and the article
are primarily marriages. The way that Mike Foster was able to highlight
the errors initially was through his own painstaking work indexing full
quarters of marriages and running searches on his computer. For every
quarter that we complete, we will enable exactly the same comparison to
be made by anyone who can access the internet. They can find the person
they think and do a search on the quarter and see who else is apparently
registered on the same page. By seeing the names that match, the
searcher can make a reasonable guess as to the correct certificate for
the marriage and identify rogue entries. In short, for each quarter that
we complete, we will enhance the chances of people finding the correct
marriage. Also, the route for Births and Deaths to be registered and
entered into the indexes was different. Whilst there will inevitably be
errors in them, the level of errors is not likely to be the same as for
5) The inaccuracies in the records that were checked by Mike vary
depending on the year and the type of source. Lets take a severe case of
20% inaccuracy. That still means that 80% are accurate. 80% of the
people will be able to find their records faster and more efficiently
and with an extra level of comfort that they have the correct one. The
remaining 20% will have more information to hand with which to make the
judgement as to whether to order a particular a particular certificate.
Searches can be made for names that could be similar (be it Soundex or
whatever), something that is nearly impossible with a reasonable common
name using the current non-computerised indexes.
6) As years are completed in this project, there will be an ability to
see the spread of a surname across regions, where particular surnames
are concentrated, and other such demographics. On the assumption that
errors are random in the system, these comparisons will be valid as the
trends should be independent of errors. When we have someone who moved
into London, for example, or emigrated, there is a chance to see the
distribution of the name and have a reasonable idea of places to look
for the origin of the surname.
7) Personally, I would love 1) or 2) to become reality. I could sit back
with everyone else and wait for the appearance of a new system. However,
I would rather be working in conjunction with the other campaigns,
giving an alternative should they not be successful. It may turn out
that the work I put in is not used in the long term, but I feel very
strongly that it is important that we have some method of contingency in
the event of no change. Most people doing genealogy on the internet are
not necessarily in a position to help out with indexing projects very
often. This one gives a real opportunity to people around the world to
give something back to UK Genealogy and leave an exceptionally useful
resource for future genealogists. I would rather be attempting that,
than in 10 years be sitting in the FRC, a Public Library, or an LDS FHC
looking through the non-computerised copies of the indexes saying ..
We are not in competition with Mike Foster and Anthony Camp for
funds, resources, or permission. Nothing we are doing reduces the
importance of what they are attempting. Equally, until there is further
progress on the campaigns, I don't believe the necessity of FreeBMD is
reduced. The project is neither futile nor absurd, it is a way of
ensuring that, whichever way the UK Government/PRO/ONS jump on this,
there will be a computerised index for the Birth, Marriage and Death
Indexes for England and Wales.
Camilla von Massenbach