Open Access in Genealogy
By Harry, on 7 December 2022
Post by Marie Dewerpe, Open Access team. Library, Culture, Collections and Open Science.
This blog post relates to personal experiences I have had with open data and open access in genealogy. Besides working as an open access assistant, I am an amateur genealogist. Therefore, I asked myself: what about open access in genealogy?
Family history is bit like a detective work in the archives. You are looking for clues and proof of where your ancestors lived and who they were. To create your family tree, you need to access records. The main records genealogists use are the birth, marriage and death (BMD) and census records collected by the government. They are usually stored by the state at the national, regional or local level.
Depending on the country, the data is archived differently by the civil services. I will be writing about accessing records that do not concern living individuals protected by blanket policies such as the Data Protection Act in the UK.
The field of genealogy has a history of collaboration and volunteering. Fellow genealogists will search on your behalf in exchange for you helping other genealogists. Transcribers, translators and online forums are on hand to provide help. This kind of free support from other genealogists is quite common. But when I started looking into open data and open access in genealogy, I realised there is little information on the topic. From my experience of navigating archives in different countries (France, Estonia and the UK) I also noticed some similarities and disparities in gaining access to genealogical resources.
In France, many genealogical resources are free to access in the public archives. They can be reused under similar terms as the Creative Commons licence. For example, the Office Français De Protection Des Réfugiés Et Apatrides (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons) allows the user to reuse their public data with some restrictions, such as respecting the integrity of information. But these resources are not always easily searchable. When they are searchable you often need to use a private company’s database or a local group database. Furthermore, you must subscribe to the volunteer group or a private company in order to access the transcribed data and their searchable database.
In Estonia, documents like birth, marriage and death certificates are available freely. You can also ask the national archives to digitise their physical records for a small fee. After a while these digitised documents are shared on their website and are also freely available. As with France, it is not easy to navigate the resources when you are not literate in classification. But unlike France, some of the archival material is searchable on the National Archives website. Because France and Estonia are part of the European Union, their approach to public data is quite similar.
In the UK almost all “basic” records such as birth, marriage and death certificates are behind a pay wall. You must subscribe to private companies to access what is available freely to those based in other countries. The information includes census, birth, marriage and death records. Having to pay for these records no doubt affects who can access the genealogical resources. Local libraries facilitate access to family histories, but they also have to subscribe to databases that are originally stored by public entities like the National Archives, but are managed by private companies.
I found one initiative, FreeUKGenealogy, which supports free access to genealogy data without restrictions on its use. As explained on their website, they want to bypass pay walls and allow users to access public data.
To sum up this exploration of open data and open access in genealogy, there are differences in access levels from country to country. When in France and Estonia, the records are freely accessible, in the UK you need to subscribe to private companies. However, free access does not mean easy access. Indeed, it is difficult to use the material without proficiency in archiving. In France, you have the option to access searchable databases, but there are fees involved. These current limitations place financial and knowledgeable barriers on those who wish to consult and use the records. This is where initiatives like FreeUKGenealogy are extremely useful.
Here are some free resources on getting started in genealogy:
For more information on open data in France, here is a fascinating paper: