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The FreeUKGEN Initiative:

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is FreeUKGEN?
  2. Why is FreeUKGEN Needed?
  3. What Specific Projects will FreeUKGEN support?
  4. What Facilities will FreeUKGEN Provide?
  5. Why the Stress on "Free" Information?
  6. How will FreeUKGEN operate?
  7. How big is FreeUKGEN?
  8. How may I help?
  9. Who are the leaders of FreeUKGEN?
  10. What sort of organisation is FreeUKGEN?
  11. Who owns the information held in FreeUKGEN data?
  12. Who owns the FreeUKGEN databases and software?
  13. Will or could the databases ever be used to create a commercial product or service?
  14. Why is FreeUKGEN hosted at RootsWeb?

1. What is FreeUKGEN?

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.

Specifically, FreeUKGEN aims:

2. Why is FreeUKGEN Needed?

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.

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 transcriptions.

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.

3. What Specific Projects will FreeUKGEN support?

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 [1], and so also to employ database search techniques to good effect in connection with relatively unstructured text, such as manorial records.)

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 resources.

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.

4. What Facilities will FreeUKGEN Provide?

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 RootsWeb's sponsorship.

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 this.

5. Why the Stress on "Free" Information?

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 available.

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 [2].

6. How will FreeUKGEN operate?

7. How big is FreeUKGEN?

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.

8. How may I help?

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.

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.

9. Who are the leaders of FreeUKGEN?

To date the FreeUKGEN Leadership consists of Ann Boyes, Ben Laurie, John Lerwill, Brian Randell, Phil Stringer and Camilla von Massenbach. 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 lists.

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 plans.

10. What sort of organisation is FreeUKGEN

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.

11. Who owns the information held in FreeUKGEN data?

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.

12. Who owns the FreeUKGEN databases and software?

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 non-profitmaking.

13. Will or could the databases ever be used to create a commercial product or service?

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.

14. Why is FreeUKGEN hosted at RootsWeb?

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 advertising.

References

1. Macfarlane, A., Harrison, S. and Jardine, C. Reconstructing Historical Communities, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press (1977) 222 p.

2. Bockman, J. Why Should A Genealogy Society Give Records Away?" FGS FORUM (Winter 1997), p.25.

Last updated 21 Mar 2008, Brian Randell.

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