Genealogy as economic opportunity

Deputy Catherine Murphy TD

Deputy Catherine Murphy TD

By Brian Donovan
CEO, Eneclann

Last Thursday, October 3rd, during the second stage of the Freedom of Information Bill 2013, Deputy Catherine Murphy, made some very important points about genealogy, freedom of information and what they mean for Ireland, our diaspora, and our future.

Rarely does genealogy get a hearing in the Dáil, so this is a welcome development in its own right. But many of Deputy Murphy’s comments were timely and highlight some of the key challenges facing all those engaged in making the practice of family history easier or even possible.

While she focused on possible implications of the new Freedom of Information Bill, she brought attention to the continuing problem over the definition of what constitutes “genealogical research”, and what is “personal data”. This is the perennial conflict between Freedom of Information and its bedfellow Data Protection. Technically you have the right to know things only in so far as it does not breach someone else’s right to privacy. Fair enough, but Ireland already has some of the most stringent Data Protection rules anywhere in Europe. Typically our Data Protection commissioner will make a blanket ruling to stop any data being released unless it is 100 years old, or where you can prove conclusively that everyone mentioned is either dead or born over 100 years ago.

So in 2011 when Eneclann published the prison registers at our sister website, www.findmypast.ie, we were allowed to publish up to 1924, because 14 was the minimum age for incarceration at that time. (When releasing the Petty Sessions court registers a strict 100 year rule was required as occasionally infants are named.)

The same is true for all other records and acts as a major impediment for research. It means that the data relating to more than three generations is withheld at any one time. For those starting family history research, their first challenge is getting over this 100 year hurdle. Deputy Murphy made a very sensible suggestion that we follow practice in the USA and several EU states where “any information over 70 years old cannot be deemed as personal information and is, accordingly, open for historical research”.

Such a basic change enacted now would resolve problems relating to all state records up to 1943, opening up tens of millions of hidden archival treasures, thereby enabling access to those starting their family history (and possibly answering a few thorny historical problems at the same time!).

But Deputy Murphy made another equally important point, and in fact even introduced her comments on genealogy by stating:

Given the size of our diaspora, genealogy research could provide an economic opportunity.

She is absolutely right about this. While we’re not going to resolve all our economic woes with family history, the numbers engaged in the business of genealogy (in commercial research, record digitisation, online publishing, roots tourism, etc.) has grown 10-fold in less than a decade. The government needs to be aware that much of the joy in genealogy for our citizens and diaspora alike is made possible by a small army of people who make a living making that possible, not least of whom are the hard pressed librarians and archivists of our cultural institutions.

If the economic potential of genealogy is going to be released we need a co-ordinated approach by the state, informed by all those engaged in the sector.

You can read the full text of the Dáil debate on the Freedom of Information Bill, and its knock-on impact on genealogy, on the Oireachtas website here


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