The FreeUKGEN Initiative:
Frequently Asked Questions
FreeUKGEN is an initiative aimed at helping make high quality
primary (or near-primary) records of relevance to UK genealogy
conveniently and freely available online, in a coherent, easy to
access and search, information retrieval system.
- What is FreeUKGEN?
- Why is FreeUKGEN Needed?
- What Specific Projects will FreeUKGEN
- What Facilities will FreeUKGEN
- Why the Stress on "Free" Information?
- How will FreeUKGEN operate?
- How big is FreeUKGEN?
- How may I help?
- Who are the leaders of FreeUKGEN?
- What sort of organisation is
- Who owns the information held in
- Who owns the FreeUKGEN databases and
- Will or could the databases ever be used
to create a commercial product or service?
- Why is FreeUKGEN hosted at
Specifically, FreeUKGEN aims:
At present, a great many indexes and transcriptions of primary (or
near-primary) records of relevance to UK genealogy are only
available either in printed form (either on paper or microfiche)
from or at the premises of various organisations, such as Record
Offices and FHSs, or on CD-ROM, from the LDS and various commercial
organisations. However such indexes and transcriptions are
beginning to be made available in online databases by large
organisations (particularly commercial ones in the States). And
individual volunteers (sometimes working under the direction of an
FHS) are also starting to make such information available online,
though so far mainly just in Web pages, using various text formats,
rather than via sophisticated search facilities.
- to provide facilities, tools and support for (i) a set of
indexing and transcribing projects, each aimed at a particular
class of genealogical record, and using the Internet for
communication, and co-ordination among the volunteers involved, and
(ii) online access to the results of these projects. The actual
projects will we expect be carried out either by existing
volunteer-based organisations, such as Family History Societies, or
new volunteer groupings set up for a particular project.
- to promote, among the organisations and individuals involved in
such projects, good use of relevant computer science techniques,
e.g. concerning interfaces, databases, data interchange protocols,
and system design generally, and to encourage projects to be
technically forward-looking in such matters. It similarly intends
to promote, and facilitate, current best practice in organising and
carrying out indexing and transcription projects so as ensure high
- to encourage the growth of world-wide volunteer efforts, and
make good use of these efforts, e.g. by reducing accidental
duplication of transcription and indexing, and by facilitating
access to the overall set of information resources that are
produced, e.g. by the use of modern database technology and search
The GENUKI project was
set up four years ago as a large virtual reference library, and now
contains well over 250 Mbytes of data, the result of the efforts of
a main core of over fifty volunteers, plus a number of additional
helpers. It contains and provides links to information about what
primary material is available where, and also a growing collection
of indexes and transcriptions, and of digital images, of such
material. GENUKI was specifically designed to be capable of
remaining coherent and easy to use as the amount of information it
contained, and the number of people and societies involved in its
development, grew by several orders of magnitude. Standards, based
on the organisation of the LDS Family History Library, were devised
for structuring and formatting GENUKI's main text pages, but in
early 1995, due to the lack of availability of suitable facilities,
it was not feasible to plan on using, let alone setting up
standards for, Web-accessible databases. Indeed, at this date, it
would have been counter-productive to try and insist on standard
formats for particular types of text-based indexes or
Now however, especially in the world of electronic commerce,
Web-accessible databases are commonplace. However, facilities for
setting up and maintaining such databases are still not generally
available to individuals, e.g. from Internet Access Providers, and
the techniques involved are much more complex and less-standardised
than those involved in creating Web pages. Moreover, there are many
more genealogists online now, and it becoming evident that a
significant number are willing and able to take part in communal
large-scale indexing and transcribing projects related to UK
records. But if their efforts are to result in large high-quality,
easily-searched online databases, such volunteers need help and
access to suitable tools and database facilities. And if the
resulting resources are to form a coherent overall information
resource, akin to and associated with the existing GENUKI system,
an umbrella organisation is needed to undertake the necessary
planning and co-ordination.
FreeUKGEN will complement GENUKI by focussing its efforts on
information that is well-suited to the use of database technology,
such as (i) indexes to primary records and (ii) transcriptions of
primary records that are highly structured, e.g. census records.
(However, it might in due course be possible to use, perhaps via
XML, the sort of tagged full text approach pioneered by MacFarlane
, and so also to employ database search techniques to good
effect in connection with relatively unstructured text, such as
Though FreeUKGEN will concentrate on indexes and transcriptions,
continuing capacity improvements and cost reductions in digital
storage technology, and the growing availability of scanners, are
such that it is reasonable to assume that indexes and
transcriptions will, on an increasing scale, be accompanied by good
quality scanned images of the actual primary records. These might
either held within, or linked to from, FreeUKGEN-provided
One of the projects that it is envisioned will in future be
supported by FreeUKGEN is already in progress, namely FreeBMD. This project was
initiated in 1998, to work towards providing a free online database
of 100 years and older GRO Indexes. At time of writing (August
1999) its database contained over 270,000 items, the work of nearly
seventy Internet volunteers.
A second project concerns census records, and named
FreeCEN. This now involves a large number of volunteers covering many counties.
To be eligible for support from FreeUKGEN, projects must be
non-commercial, have good prospects of resulting in useful
additions to the body of high quality genealogy-related information
available online, and must be willing to adhere to such standards
and rules as FreeUKGEN defines. These standards and rules will be
devised in consultation with other relevant organisations, and
cover both administrative and technical issues. Administrative
rules will concern such matters as adherence to copyright and
database right, and the provision of clear and satisfactory
statements as to the respective rights and responsibilities of the
project organisers and volunteers. (For example, FFHS guidelines
include the recommendation that a form be signed by all project
participants before starting work agreeing who the owner of
copyright and database right is, so that it is clear from the
start. This helps prevent possible disagreement at a later stage.)
Technical standards will all be related to achieving overall
coherence and facilitating co-operation, and effective shared use
of common hardware and software resources. This apart, projects
will be organised largely independently of each other, and of
FreeUKGEN. Such projects may be newly created, or already possess
extensive indexed or transcribed material.
FreeUKGEN will provide the projects that it supports with a common
set of database and project management facilities, and a basic set
of search facilities that can be used, and extended if necessary,
by the different projects for their differing types of information.
At least initially, these facilities will be mounted on computer
resources that FreeUKGEN has arranged to be provided through
Free online access will be provided to genealogists world-wide,
using a standard search interface, much as the LDS has now started
using a standard search interface (the "Resource File Viewer") for
their various CD-ROMS. The FreeUKGEN standard search interface will
be augmented as required by the various projects to suit any
special needs of the particular types of record.
As and when feasible, record-linking facilities will be provided
that enable searches to be conducted across the databases,
including those generated from different projects and information
types - in effect turning them into one giant database, though the
individual databases will not actually be merged, and will remain
the responsibility of their respective projects. (One can draw an
analogy to the way in which GenServ provides access to a large
set of separate GEDCOM databases.)
In due course, we would expect it to become practical for the
indexes and transcriptions to be accompanied by high quality
scanned images of the records from which they are derived, provided
that any necessary permissions can be obtained from the record
owners - the resources available to us from RootsWeb will permit
Although there is a rapidly growing use of the Web for delivering
information that has to be paid for - for example by credit card -
the original Internet tradition of making information freely
available, and of informal co-operative development of new free
information resources, remains very much alive. This is
particularly the case in genealogy - examples of major such free
resources are the hundreds of ships passenger lists made available
by the Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild, and the large number of
census and directory records transcribed by the Newfoundland Grand
Banks project. The FreeBMD Project is we believe the largest
UK-based such project at present.
RootsWeb is a major resource for a number of these major
indexing and transcribing projects. It does not allow, leave alone
provide the necessary facilities for, charging for on-line access.
Thus, even if FreeUKGEN wished to allow charges to be made, this is
not an option while it relies on RootsWeb.
In fact, though various commercial and governmental
organisations may choose to make a charge for their online
information services, volunteer-provided free information resources
will we believe continue to prove a valuable adjunct to such
services, one that FreeUKGEN hopes to spur considerably. It will,
however, be neither feasible nor desirable for the FreeUKGEN
projects to attempt to duplicate the provision of existing online
or off-line, free or commercial, information resources - there are
far too many other resources that could usefully be made
It is therefore planned that the FreeUKGEN projects will, in
collaboration with GENUKI, augment the free online information that
they provide access to with details concerning the availability of
other directly-related information sources. (This would however be
limited to information from non-commercial organisations, such as
official government archives and family history societies.)
These other information sources might include printed
publications, online services (including ones for which a charge is
made), CD-ROMs, etc. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the existence
of FreeUKGEN will spur organisations, such as family history
societies, to reconsider what are the most cost-effective and
labour-saving means of making available the results of their
members' indexing and transcribing activities. In particular, we
would draw their attention to an article on this subject, by
Jeffrey Bockman .
FreeUKGEN, as a central organisation, can be expected to remain
quite modest in size. However the scope of its possible projects is
vast, and indeed the Initiative as a whole will never be finished,
as such. Of course, the more people who join in and help FreeUKGEN,
and the projects it is supporting, the sooner the Initiative will
start providing useful search services to users.
FreeUKGEN, and the projects which it sets up or which choose to
make use of its services, are and will remain entirely
dependent on the efforts of volunteers and sponsors all over the
world. The Initiative is at a very early stage in its existence. We
would welcome additional volunteers who have experience of setting
up and running volunteer-based indexing and transcribing projects,
and/or who can ensure that FreeUKGEN develops effective links with
the various bodies that it will need to co-operate with, and who
would like to help plan and guide the future of the Initiative.
- The FreeUKGEN leadership (see FAQ 9 below) in collaboration
with relevant other organisations, such as the FFHS, SoG, PRO, and
individual FHSs, Record Offices, etc., will identify existing or
new indexing/transcribing projects suitable for FreeUKGEN support,
using RootsWeb computer facilities. Such projects might be the work
either of individual genealogists, or of societies or other (formal
or informal) organisations.
- The various FreeUKGEN-supported projects will co-ordinate and
carry out the data entry of UK genealogy source materials. Data
entered into the databases will be available for free access
through search facilities provided by FreeUKGEN.
- The FreeUKGEN leadership will specify and ensure suitable
quality standards are maintained, such as the use of
specially-designed data input facilities incorporating extensive
checking facilities, and/or double keying by independent
transcribers; it will also provide projects with computer-based
tools to aid project management, data quality control, etc.
- Provision will be made of an appropriately designed set of web
and database server facilities that can host, and provide open
coherent access to, the results of the transcription and indexing
- In all cases, data will be accepted in as straightforward way
as possible for the submitter usually including a simple text
format which can be prepared off-line using a variety of basic
word-processing, spreadsheet or database management software.
FreeUKGEN at this stage of course also needs volunteers with
expertise in project organisation, system and information
management, programming, and Web page design and maintenance.
Individual projects will also need such volunteers, and of course
indexers and transcribers - in large numbers. Relevant contact
details will be provided shortly.
To date the FreeUKGEN Leadership consists of Ann Boyes, Ben Laurie,
John Lerwill, Brian Randell, Phil Stringer and Camilla von
We, the above group, were spurred to develop the FreeUKGEN plans to
their present stage by discussions initiated on the DEVON-L mailing
list concerning the problems of online access to Devon-related
genealogical information, and later broadened in scope and to a
larger readership, namely the SoG, FFHS-PROJ and EDGI mailing
Boyes, webmaster team leader for the Fianna pages on Irish
Genealogy has extensive experience of both computer consultancy and
Laurie is co-leader of FreeBMD, is a member of the Apache
Group, author of "Apache: The Definitive Guide" and Technical
Director of A.L. Digital Ltd.
Lerwill is the organiser of the Devon Census Transcription
Project, and is a London-based independent business computing and
software consultant, and has had a deep interest in genealogy and
local history for nearly ten years
Randell is a co-founder of GENUKI, and maintainer of
GENUKI/Devon, and is Professor of Computing Science at the
University of Newcastle.
Stringer is a co-founder of GENUKI, and in charge of its main
facilities at the University of Manchester, where he is responsible
for managing and providing support for Unix systems at Manchester
von Massenbach is another of the co-leaders of FreeBMD, and a
keen genealogist of five years standing.
Of these mailing lists, it is worth explaining that EDGI -
standing for Electronic Delivery of Genealogical Information - is
an informal grouping of senior representatives of organisations
such as the SoG, FFHS, PRO, ONS, LDS, GOONS, IHGS and GENUKI. The
group met at the SoG at the instigation of GENUKI in June 1998 to
discuss UK Genealogy and the Internet, and in particular ways of
encouraging the use of the Internet and electronic publication.
Since then EDGI's main activities have been the provision of
tutorial demonstrations for FHS committee members. However, we hope
that its members, and their respective organisations, will play a
valuable role in helping to refine and pursue FreeUKGEN's
At present, FreeUKGEN is, like the well-established FreeBMD and
GENUKI organisations, and in the tradition of many other
Internet-spawned organisations, an informal essentially budgetless
volunteer co-operative. If and when the overall FreeUKGEN operation
grows to such a size that it becomes appropriate for it to be more
formally constituted, or the organisations depending on it request
this, then we would hope to arrange this in consultation with
bodies such as the FFHS and the SoG.
In order to try to ensure that all the information that it holds is
protected from unauthorised exploitation, e.g. by commercial
organisations, FreeUKGEN will, through its collective leadership,
claim copyright over such information unless copyright ownership of
the information is already established, e.g. by the owner of the
records from which a transcription was derived, or the society
which organised production of an index. In general we would expect
that this latter situation will hold.
The facilities that FreeUKGEN acquires or develops will be regarded
as owned by the leadership collectively, unless and until it
becomes appropriate to set up a legal organisation for this
purpose, or to vest the ownership in some existing organisation. In
each case the organisation would be required to be
This will be largely up to the owners of each FreeUKGEN-supported
database. However, FreeUKGEN support will be offered only to people
and organisations that undertake to allow continued free online
searches of their supported databases, even if they later decide
use these databases as the basis of a separate commercial product
or service. (For example, an FHS might choose to work with
FreeUKGEN in providing online information, but also produce CD-ROM
or printed versions of this information for sale.) FreeUKGEN itself
will remain a non-commercial service.
RootsWeb is a
well-established genealogical co-operative committed to giving free
access and sponsorship to genealogists, which has acquired and
developed extensive hardware and software resources - the "world's
oldest and largest genealogy site". It already makes these
available to the FreeBMD project, and to certain parts of GENUKI.
The only way of FreeUKGEN has at the moment of getting the
necessary resources it needs in order to provide the planned
Web-accessible database facilities to UK information suppliers and
users is to rely on the RootsWeb genealogical co-operative.
Unfortunately not enough of many tens of thousands of genealogists
who use RootsWeb bother to support it financially, so RootsWeb has
to rely in part on banner advertising. In due course FreeUKGEN
might be able to find alternative sources of support, ideally here
in the UK, preferably ones that will avoid the need to have banner
1. Macfarlane, A., Harrison, S. and Jardine, C. Reconstructing
Historical Communities, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press (1977)
2. Bockman, J. Why Should A Genealogy Society Give Records
Away?" FGS FORUM (Winter 1997), p.25.
Last updated 21 Mar 2008, Brian Randell.