Genealogy sector must unwind its historically twisted roots
BUSINESS OPINION: A SEEMINGLY logical move by the National Library to look for a partner to digitise its collections may well lift the lid on the mess that is the Irish “roots” business.
On the face of it, the National Library is not up to anything particularly subversive. Like every other State institution, it is strapped for cash and having to think of creative ways to fulfil its mandate.
But the decision to try and capitalise on the wealth of genealogical data in its archives is likely to kick over a hornets’ nest of vested interests and public service fiefdoms that have combined to prevent any co-ordinated exploitation of the State genealogical records to drive tourism and revenue.
A case in point is The Gathering 2013, one of the Government’s “big ideas” to boost tourism. According to its own website, “Over 70 million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry. The Gathering Ireland 2013 provides the perfect excuse to reach out to those who have moved away, their relatives, friends and descendants, and invite them home.” You would expect such big enterprise to be supported by a slick online genealogical platform, But go to the “Tracing your roots” link at the bottom of the page and you are provided with links to no fewer than eight disparate bodies – including the National Library – that are in the roots game to some extent or the other. By moving to digitise its collections – including the all-important parish records – it is clearly moving to become primus inter pares in this muddle through bringing in a top-notch partner.
Any organisation seriously considering a joint venture with the National Library will zone in on the genealogical records. The early favourite, Scottish group Brightsolid, is first and foremost a genealogy business.
The hope is that the National Library will be able to get it – or whoever else chooses – to digitise the rest of its collection. This is equally important in the national context but far less commercially valuable. But it can expect a pretty rough ride.
The record books of the Irish churches are the mother lode for Irish genealogy research as they are the only reliable records of births, deaths and marriages in the period up to the Civil War, when the national archive was destroyed. They are in theory the property of the various bishops – Catholic and Church of Ireland – but the National Library has microfiche copies, which it owns and which will no doubt form the heart of any deal it does with a third party. Then there is the Irish Family History Foundation, which operates a commercial site ( RootsIreland.ie) and is led by Fianna Fáil Senator and putative presidential candidate Labhrás Ó Murchú. It has its own version of the parish records database – copied by hand from the National Library microfiche apparently.