Monday, 24 September 2012


The Irish Times - Monday, September 24, 2012

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 ( 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.
A somewhat opaque organisation, it is described on its website as "a company limited by guarantee with no share capital and no distribution of profits. As such it is a voluntary organisation made up of local genealogy centres, the majority of which are legally established on the same basis. It is governed by its articles and memorandum of association, which set out how it operates and limits its membership to 35 local centres with specified catchment areas."
The beneficiaries of its activities would appear then to be the promoters of the various local genealogy centres, many of which are subvented by county councils and other State bodies. They are certainly a powerful bunch as they appear to have been able to stymy any efforts by the Government to control the exploitation of this State asset.
The Government's main investment in this area is, run by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. However, it gets only equal billing with RootsIreland.ieon The Gathering website. The reason being presumably because it only offers access to the Catholic parish records of Cork and Ross, Dublin and Kerry. (It also has the Church of Ireland records for Dublin, Carlow and Kerry.) RootsIreland seems to have the rest.
The National Library's decision to get into the "roots" game raises the prospect of real competition for the Irish Family History Foundation. It also creates a situation where one arm of the State ( will be competing (albeit half-heartedly) with another (the National Library), while both compete with the peculiar beast that is the Irish Family History Foundation.
It is a mess and needs to be sorted out for a number of reasons, the first being that if the Government thinks it is good idea to commercialise the National Library collection in order to preserve it digitally, then it had better ensure that any potential partner is encouraged.
The second reason is that if the Government is serious about using genealogy to drive tourism, then it had better get serious about genealogy.

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