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Midas newsletter item - May 1997

Regular readers of the newsletter may have noticed a reference to GENUKI in the last Newsletter, and having recently seen it myself I've found that I'm expected to describe what it is. GENUKI is a WWW service which has been based on the CS6400 for a couple of years now and provides information related to genealogy and Family History for the UK and Ireland. As it is one of the "unofficial" services which tend to appear on university systems, you may not have come across it before, but surprisingly it has become well known throughout the world. One user told me she had come across the URL, / in a magazine whilst at the hairdressers in Canada.

GENUKI is actually a co-operative venture, and is now no longer wholly based on the CS6400, but is based upon servers mainly within this country, at other universities and in personal WWW spaces belonging to the 40 or so individuals providing the information, most of whom have yet to meet face to face. The service is organised this way to reduce the load imposed on individual systems and to devolve maintenance to those with specialised knowledge of particular areas. This has actually worked very well with a common look and feel between sites, so that users frequently do not realise they are using many machines. This has all been achieved by having a set of standards for data presentation and organisation that all contributors agree to follow. So if you are contemplating a WWW service maintained by a number of people, first define the rules for layout, presentation and content, and you will be on the right track.

Now what is the relevance of genealogy to the Midas service. Well there are a number of things in common with the advertised services that Midas provides. Genealogy is finding out who your ancestors were, and once you have started on that you want to find ou t about their lifestyle so the task is then considerably larger and is usually called Family History if like the majority of us our ancestors were not well off, then there are less records available and social history of the time becomes important. There are actually quite a number of records available even if your ancestors were not well off and these are of use in a wider sense in undertaking historical research. For instance heavy use is made of the census for the last century by genealogists, and it through their efforts that work on transcribing the 1881 census has recently been completed and is being made available via the ESRC data archive at Essex.

Now don't assume like many prospective GENUKI users that every historical record is now online and can be browsed via the WWW, as it will be a long time before that happens. The information that is provided at the moment is primarily details of what information is available and where to find it. Ive mentioned earlier that the information is structured and this is done geographically by country, county and town/parish and by subject heading. So in effect its like accessing a library via its catalogue and indeed the subject headings are in fact the same as those used in the largest genealogical library run by the Mormons in Salt Lake City.

The information available continues to grow and great care is actually taken to make sure that nothing breaches copyright, and that it is done with the permission of the original transcribers. This does help to encourage the provision of information and there are now quite a number of indexes and transcripts of information held within GENUKI. But there is still a considerable amount of information out there with many members of Family History Societies transcribing and publishing it. For example sections of the 1851 census have become virtually unreadable due to water damage, and parts of Manchester could not be filmed by the PRO and made available. But much of this data is now becoming available due to the work of the Manchester & Lancashire Family History Society who are transcribing it at the PRO and publishing it on microfiche. So without their efforts it would not be available at all.

So in the long term if we encourage the many genealogists around the world to continue this work and make it available, then a lot more historical data will become available in machine readable form which can be used for the basis of research. The 1881 census project is now completed and other national projects are under way to transcribe more information. One such project is the National death & Burial index initially providing such information for the first half of the 19th century. This has just been a very brief overview of what genuki aims to provide, if you want to find out more explore the WWW pages which contain a much fuller description and copies of a number of articles which have been published it. Contact Phil Stringer if you have an interest in computing with historical data and have ideas about how genuki or its sources could help you. Please do not ask me to do genealogical research as I have little enough lunch time to maintain GENUKI, the rest of my time is spent on maintaining Unix systems.

Phil Stringer