The future of family history


09 December 2021
As we welcome in a new year, Dr Nick Barratt invites us to look ahead at what the coming decades might hold for family history.

We’ve always been fascinated by what our ancestors got up to, pretty much since our Tudor forebears began to compile extensive pedigrees that claimed aristocratic or armigerous descent, driven in part by Richard III’s creation of the College of Arms in 1484 and as a direct result of the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1520s and 1530s.

Vast swathes of land previously held by these religious houses were seized by the crown and sold off to private individuals, who sought to legitimise their new riches and social status by claiming descent from more illustrious families. Such was the level of interest – and increasing concern amongst some of the elite about the validity of the claims being made – that the royal heralds were sent round the shires to gather proof, which was collected by the College of Arms and used as evidence for later works such as Debrett’s Peerage or Burke’s Landed Gentry.

Turning to our roots for solace

There are two parallels with today. Our sensible caution over the accuracy of current-day online content should also be applied to many of these historic pedigrees, as quite a few appear to have been an exercise in wish-fulfilment; human nature being what it is, money may have changed hands to buy the approval of the heralds who were sent to check them. Equally, isn’t it odd that at times of major national disruption, people turn to their roots for solace? It’s probably no coincidence that the number of Britons seeking an Irish passport, based on genealogical research, rose sharply as a result of Brexit.

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The trend towards online record access

The age of austerity, brought about by the financial meltdown in 2008, accelerated the trend towards online access to records. Local authorities were forced to make tough decisions about where to spend their budgets. Libraries and archives were worst hit and therefore encouraged to work in partnership with the commercial providers to digitise and upload content to the aggregation platforms in return for pay-per-view income. In theory, this should have been a win-win situation, as key resources such as parish registers were brought to millions of people around the world at the click of a mouse, whilst archives generated much-needed revenue to protect their frontline services.

However, we now are beginning to see some of the unintended consequences of the decision to aggregate content on commercial platforms, rather than provide direct access to material via the archive itself.

The connection between the digital images we see and the primary source material in an archive has become fractured, which means that the numbers of people heading to archives for follow-up research on non-digital content has plummeted – with the result that many archives had started to limit opening hours long before the pandemic closed their doors because footfall had dropped. We should be deeply concerned that frontline services are further reduced in the coming years, and access restrictions remain in place, because the vast majority of historical records will never be digitised – it simply does not make economic sense to do so given the data is not sufficiently structured nor name-rich for transcription purposes. Furthermore, the law of diminishing returns has now set in, and archives have seen a reduction in the amount of revenue from licenced content because their data receives proportionately fewer clicks.

This is an important point for the future of family history, because we are creating an environment where people naturally assume that all relevant content is on a commercial aggregation platform such as Ancestry, FindMyPast or MyHeritage, which will limit the range of sources that could enrich their knowledge and understanding of the past. Furthermore, in doing so we are eroding the distinction between research, and search – with the former case, we pose a question about what we want to find out, test a range of hypotheses by exploring a range of sources, and then reach a conclusion about what’s going on based on what we’ve uncovered. In short, we think and reflect.

However, when we search online, the aggregation platforms do all the thinking for us via the algorithms they use to match your search terms with the information contained in their database, regardless of the quality of the data, the accuracy of the transcription or source information, or the type of source that is being matched – an official source, or user-uploaded content. Less experienced users often assume that the search results are accurate and accept them without questioning. Transcription errors and inaccurate information are therefore built into our family trees, and then presented as data for the next round of searches to find.

Where next?

If we focus on compelling storytelling, we can create incredible learning resources for schools that use our ancestors to bring history to life in new and imaginative ways – multimedia technology based on real characters is already standard in heritage sites to engage with audiences, for example. We can ensure that our shared history is far more inclusive, relevant and democratic, which is even more important than ever as we tackle the challenges to our communities posed by the pandemic, Brexit, climate change...

Plenty for our descendants to read about in our digital memoirs, then.

Extracted from an in-depth article on the future of family history in the January 2022 issue of Family Tree magazine.

About the author

Dr Nick Barratt is an author, broadcaster and historian best known for his work on BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are. He is the Director of Learner and Discovery Services at the Open University, a teaching fellow at the University of Dundee and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His latest publication, The Restless Kings, explores the reigns of Henry II, Richard I and John. He served as President of the Family History Federation from 2011-2021, sits on the Executive Committee of the Community Archives and Heritage Group and is part of the Historians Collaborate network.

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