Free UK Genealogy CIO is the umbrella charity for volunteer-led transcription projects FreeBMD, FreeREG and FreeCEN. In fact, the charity sprang from the FreeBMD project, growing in scope and ambition to what it is today. It is our mission to provide free, online access to family history records. We support thousands of dedicated volunteers to create high-quality transcriptions of public records from governmental sources, parish churches, and other trusted institutions. Openness is one of our core principles, and we believe that Open Data and Open Source are key to making and keeping public records accessible to all.
This year our organisation is celebrating its 20th anniversary; here is a retrospective look at how far Free UK Genealogy has come, and plans for the future that set the scene for the next 20 years.
In 1998 the internet was in its infancy. Records were very difficult to access; to research ones family tree meant visiting the county/city that held the records, which could very well mean visiting a different country! There were early attempts to address this e.g. the Phillimore parish register transcriptions, but copies could often only be accessed in libraries. The barrier to genealogy was very much an economic one; completing a family tree was much easier if you could afford to pay for a genealogist, access ROs or buy publications. This was the impetus driving the formation of each of our three projects. The vision was to make the data freely available and accessible, wherever you are in the world.
The FreeBMD project was created in 1998 by Camilla von Massenbach, Graham Hart, Ben Laurie and David Mayall – all still trustees today. This was one of the first crowdsourced projects (the word ‘crowdsource’ didn’t get invented for another 8 years (this link takes you to the first use of the term recorded in the OED), and as a result, the outcomes were underestimated. Rootsweb noted at the time “The FreeBMD project is expected to take forever probably, and the next 15 years certainly”.
The trustees were unanimous in that transcribers should undertake a ‘type what you see’ approach, and this continues to be an underpinning principle to this day. Another of these is ‘quality over speed’, a policy that has given our projects an “excellent reputation for its high level of accuracy”.
Today, we are rapidly approaching the completion of the initial target of all registrations to 1983. FreeBMD demonstrated beyond a doubt the need for free access to genealogical data, and the ability of a volunteer organisation to achieve this.
In 2005, FreeCEN and FreeREG (independent projects which were started the year after FreeBMD, in 1999) became part of the family, and the charity changed its name from FreeBMD to Free UK Genealogy to reflect its curation of all three projects, and its wider aims to advocate free access to historical documents. Most recently, on 1st January 2017, the unincorporated charity incorporated as Free UK Genealogy CIO.
It’s our intention to include family history records from the whole of the UK, but this is very much dependent on the availability of such. Each of our projects holds records from different areas of the UK and coverage can be viewed on each site:
Today, our 400 million transcribed records are searched on the FreeBMD, FreeCEN and FreeREG websites by 262,000 users per month. We have a small staff to support the project volunteers and manage extrinsic operations such as charity compliance, marketing and communications. We are unique in that the 13,000 active volunteer transcribers and project managers have ownership of the day-to-day running, while trustees provide oversight and support, develop policies in line with our mission, and support the organisation’s sustainability.
The transcribers are supported by County and/or Syndicate Coordinators and a team of volunteer managers/leaders, who handle issues that include transcription-checking, onboarding new volunteers, uploading transcriptions to databases and sourcing and allocation of images to transcribe.
Free UK Genealogy is approximately halfway through the process of refreshing and renewing the websites. This is carried out by our projects’ Development Teams, consisting of paid and volunteer developers. FreeREG was the first to enter into this process; the first phase of User Enhancements is complete, and work is now focussing on enhancements for Coordinators, including a new, online image-allocation system.
The new FreeCEN website (FreeCEN2) launched in July 2017 and is still in the User Enhancement phase. We are now in the planning stages of FreeBMD2 development, with development expected to begin early in 2019. This will only affect the user experience as the FreeBMD database will remain as it is.
Foundation volunteers support the work of the organisation in specialist areas.; the newly-formed Digital Marketing team have done lots of work on improving the SEO (i.e. discoverability) of our websites, and have helped us to develop a more supportive and proactive Social Media community.
One of the organisation’s main aims is to become entirely Open; we’re seeking permission from Transcribers to be able to make their transcriptions available to all under the Open Database 1.0 license, and most of our code is Open Source and can be found at https://github.com/FreeUKGen.
Our plans for FreeBMD include seeking access to post-1983 BMD records and other BMD records e.g. mother’s maiden name and age at death data. This would effectively give us a ‘third keying’ which will improve quality whilst also enhancing the search and information available. We would also like to include BMDs in the British Consulates, Military, Scotland and NI. FreeCEN recently received the kind gift of a lot of fiches from the LDS Family History Centres, which will enable us to provide transcriptions of places that are currently under-represented in our database. We’re also hoping to be able to transcribe later censuses including the 1901 and 1911 censuses. The focus for FreeREG remains on sourcing images to transcribe and making further enhancements to the new website.
Across the organisation…
- Our long-term plan for Open Data is to develop a feature to allow Open records to be downloaded from our websites.
- After a successful experience in this year’s Google Summer of Code, we hope to take part again in this and other opportunities for young (and older) people to get involved with Open Source coding for Open Genealogy in 2019.
- FreeProbate – transcription of wills,
- FreePASTPlace (working title) – using linked open data to improve how we present records on specific individuals held across our projects,
- Development of an online transcription tool, to make transcribing easier and more convenient.
Whatever happens, Free UK Genealogy will continue to support free access to records and to push for full availability and transcription of original records.
By Denise Colbert, Free UK Genealogy
 April 2018