A huge change is coming soon for everyone involved in Irish genealogy. By summer 2015, the National Library of Ireland will have a dedicated website making its collection of Catholic parish register microfilms freely available online. These records are – by a long way – the single most important source of historical Irish family information, one of the greatest legacies of the Catholic Church to Ireland.
It is important to understand precisely what the website will do. The Library’s aim is to reproduce on the internet the service already available to the public in the microfilm reading room in Kildare Street in Dublin, where images of 98 per cent of parish registers before 1880 can already be viewed by anybody, without payment or membership or proof of identity.
The new site will offer precisely the same (sometimes frustrating) opportunity to look at (sometimes blurred) photographic reproductions of the original records. But instead of having to travel to Dublin from Buncrana or Ballymena or Boston, you will now be able to view them online. With this service, the Library is simply taking at face value the word "National" in its own title.
What are the implications? Clearly, once these images are as easily available in Salt Lake City and Bangalore as they are in Dublin, swarms of transcribers will descend. Ideally, the results will be free, though some transcripts may sit behind paywalls. On the other hand, there will be nothing to stop any local history society in the country from just putting a transcript of their own parishes online. The more the merrier.
Some opposition can be expected. The existing transcription-only service at rootsireland.ie will protest loudly. But would they not be better advised to use the images to improve their own offering and increase their head-start on competitors?
It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of what is about to happen. When the Irish public service gets things right, it can get them spectacularly, gloriously right.