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Privatising Your Ancestors

In recent years, swathes of Britain's public records have been bought up by multinational companies – allowing them to charge for access and make a profit from your family history.

A Victorian wedding party posing for a family portrait, circa 1890. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The National Portrait Gallery recently put out a call for family photos. It seemed an inspired move which finally recognised the historic interest of the everyday albums of British households. Until one read the small print, which revealed the initiative was actually that of a company called It is the largest of a handful of multinationals who have taken over what is now, very much, the business of family history. The frequency of their advertisements on certain TV channels is indicative of how much money there is in this sector. want your family photos. They want you to upload them to their website so others tracing their family history can have highly prized images to add to the family trees created from searching historical records. But once they are on their system, they will be charging others to access them without offering you anything. They are effectively hoping to privatise the family albums of the nation, just another field ripe for monetisation.

This is the obvious next step for what is, in effect, Big Genealogy. In the last decade or so, almost wholly unremarked, they have already privatised swathes of the public records of the UK. This has largely happened as a result of austerity, when cash-strapped local authorities pressed to digitise have done so on the cheap by handing over the contents of county record offices, built up over centuries, to these massive multinationals.

A generation ago those interested in their family history might visit county record offices and other repositories and document their family history using their collections, often with the help of the many regional family history societies whose amateur cadres were deeply informed about their locality. Now the first, and often last, port of call is just another website on your computer. Users build family trees online on, or their main competitor, using the vast documentary resources that the pair have assembled through signing up archives in the UK and elsewhere to hand over their contents. When digitised and made available online these are frequently poorly presented and badly explained to users. The bottom line is everything and so getting as many records online as quickly and cheaply as possible is the name of the game. Apart from the initial filming, the digitisation is typically done in call-centre type operations in India, and this often tells in the final product.

There is little real competition in the sector as it is impossible to have a functioning market when different sites largely have monopoly control of individual record series for particular locations. A user must sign up with the company who can give access to the records for the area in which they are interested. So, for example, someone researching a Cheshire family must pay for a subscription to, as they have secured the digital rights to all of the most genealogically significant records, notably parish registers, held by the Cheshire Record Office.

It need not have been this way. Just across the Irish Sea the government of the Republic of Ireland adopted a quite different approach. They have been putting the contents of all major archives online for free. In principle this is the right thing to do. Public records—the clue is in the name—have always been available to view without payment. If they are free to access in a physical building, why should they not also be available gratis online? The government’s costs for running a website are surely a lot less than the bricks and mortar of a repository with attendant staff to bring physical records to a user’s desk in a well-heated reading room.

But there was also an economic case behind the decision of the Irish government: for it was reckoned that the ancestor hunting of those abroad would lead increases in tourism to Ireland, in the highly desirable form of visits to areas which are off the well-beaten tourist trails. Although the key decisions made in Ireland have been the right ones, everything isn’t rosy in the garden there. Much of the actual work of digitisation has been done under contract by the big multinational players with the resultant databases sadly being the same poor quality as those found on their own websites.

The exploitative nature of Big Genealogy’s business model can be well seen in the one area where and have some competition. This is the niche area of recording memorial inscriptions and putting them online. Digital photography now makes it relatively easy for individuals to survey whole graveyards and then to upload both photographs and inscriptions. Neither and, who dominate this niche, has any staff employed to carry out such surveying and rather relies on users—that is, their customers—doing this work for them gratis. In the past, it made sense for amateurs to engage the documentation of old burial grounds when local amateur societies would then make the information collected available to all free or for the price of a physical publication. The current situation, however, is almost as ridiculous as people offering to work for free shelf-stacking for Tesco. Local voluntary efforts do still exist, but the nature of internet searching makes them very hard to find for all but the most dedicated and sophisticated user.

In the face of this situation, what can be done? For memorial inscriptions what is needed is a free, non-profit national portal gathering memorial data and putting it online in the public interest. Similarly, rather than acting as the PR department of a foreign multinational, the National Portrait Gallery should establish an online Digital Photographic Gallery of the Nation where people could post the contents of family albums. It would be online free in perpetuity. Regarding the vast quantity of public records that have, in effect, already been privatised by and, a significant immediate problem is posed by the contracts that the repositories have entered into not being available in public domain.

There is an urgent need for an inquiry, perhaps by the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee, into the precise details of what various individual archives and record offices have signed up to, what the financial benefits to them have been, and whether these have been good value for the public purse. It also needs to be asked whether the nation’s historic archives are well presented in databases that meet a sufficient standard of excellence. The competition authorities also need to closely examine this area, which is at best a duopoly, and to consider how best to regulate it.

Immediately, what is most needed is simply to make the public aware what had happened over the last decade, which is effectively the privatisation of a huge swathe of Britain’s historical archives. Only then can then can there a wider, informed public discussion about the ongoing digitisation of British archives and the forms in which they are being put online.