I've spent the last few months getting increasingly excited about the impending online release of the 1921 census for England and Wales. Like most family historians I have brick walls in some of my ancestral lines. This means that I cannot locate documentary evidence which will allow me to go back through further generations. This is so frustrating, and one of the reasons why researching family history is likely to become a life long pastime.
So you can imagine my excitement as the release date of 6th January came ever nearer. The thing with documentation and records used by family historians, is that you never quite know when even the smallest snippet of information might be the key to breaking through that brickwall. I have an example from my own family research where I spent many years trying to find out where my mother was brought up. I eventually found that information on her service record from time spent in the ATS in WW 2.
The 6th January arrived and, as promised, the 1921 census was released on the subscription site, Find My Past (FMP). I'd decided that, having already waited several years, I would wait for a couple of days before 'going in' as the site was bound to be very busy and there was some talk about whether it would be able to cope with the traffic. Those fears proved to be groundless but what was very apparent was the amount of negative feedback hitting social media.
Now I'm not a big user of social media. I'm currently on just one platform and my main interest is around my family history research business and different groups whose content will increase my knowledge and learning. This includes engagement with like minded people. And of course, I can keep up with what family members are doing.
But what struck me most was how many negative comments there were about the release. Some of the comments were about difficulties with using the system but the majority were about the cost. I can understand the frustration. If you already subscribe to FMP ( a not inconsiderable sum), then being asked to pay again to view each page from the 1921 census was never going to be popular.
The census is free to search, but to view a transcript of one record costs £2.50 and to view the original image costs £3.50. Pro subscribers, the highest level of subscription to FMP, attract a 10% discount. It's easy to see how costs could rise very quickly so it makes sense to be selective about what you decide to view.
There are just three places where it can be viewed without charge; the National Archives at Kew, Manchester Central Library and the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. For the majority of people, paying to view at home will be the cheaper option.
I have started with just direct ancestral lines and I've opted for the original images as transcriptions can so easily be inaccurate. FMP have stated that they believe they have deliverd a 98.5% accuracy rate but at the same time admit that the level of quality assurance checks have been impacted by time constraints and that they will continue reviewing the data.
However, some family historians have short memories. We found ourselves in a similar position when the 1911 census and the 1939 Register were both first released some years ago. The fact is that the genealogy subscription websites are businesses. They contract with organisations and archives to be able to make digitally available whole tranches of records to their own subscribers. These are business transactions which have a cost attached to them.
The cost of preparing the 1921 census for release must have been considerable. Repairing and conserving documents covering approximately 8.5 million households, which included just under 38 million people, was never going to be straightforward. The transcribing, indexing and digitisation added greatly to the workload. The cost of this had to be recouped. This is what would happen in any other type of business.
The good news is that at some stage in the future, costs to view pages from the 1921 census will be absorbed into the general subscriptions, and certainly by the time FMP no longer has exclusive access to it.
Although Family History is such a personal thing, and which can have a huge impact on individuals and families, its rise in popularity and movement into the digital age, has created something which I believe must be viewed as business, which has costs attached to it. It's rise in popularity must surely be as a result of the digital age. Before that , researching family history was so much harder and, in its own way, probably just as expensive.
I know which way I prefer!