News & Digest

April 1997, Vol. 11, No. 1

 1796 Quarter Session Transcription  1796 Quarter Session Image

Images from Powys Archives

Feature Article:

GENUKI - the Internet-Based UK & Ireland
Genealogical Information Service


Brian Randell and Phil Stringer


Few readers of the Family History News and Digest can fail to have heard or read during the last year or two about the Internet. But those who have not actually used it for themselves can have little appreciation of how useful the Internet is becoming to individuals, societies and organisations interested in genealogy. This is particularly the case in the USA, where the amount of genealogy-related information that is available via the Internet is already quite formidable - though taken as a whole this mass of information is very ill-organized, and hence confusing and difficult to use, especially to newcomers.

Here in the UK about two years ago we and a handful of other volunteers took it upon ourselves to develop an Internet-based information service for British and Irish genealogy. Having seen how things had developed in the USA, we were determined that this service, which is called GENUKI, should be carefully designed to be capable of remaining coherent and easy to use even as the amount of information it contains, and the number of people and societies involved in its development, grows by several orders of magnitude. It is a non-commercial service, provided in co-operation with the FFHS. There are now over thirty people involved in GENUKI (most of whom, incidentally, have yet to meet each other face to face), together with a considerable number of family history societies, and GENUKI's original design has indeed proved fully capable of coping with this growth.

This article has been written at the request of the Editors of Family History News and Digest in order to describe the relevance of the Internet and in particular GENUKI, to individuals, to the FFHS and its member societies, and to institutions such as libraries and archives that have large genealogy-related holdings.

The Internet and the World Wide Web

The Internet is a "network of networks", in that it joins together a large number of computer networks. Its significance lies in (i) the fact that it can be used just as though it were a single network, and (ii) the huge number of computers involved. (One can draw a direct analogy to the world's telephone network. This started out as a set of separate little telephone systems, each based on a single telephone exchange, operated by a different company. It only became really useful when these exchanges were all joined together, eventually world-wide.). The Internet is doubling in size every year, and in July 1996 was estimated to link over twelve million computers in about one hundred and sixty countries.

Individual users usually connect their home computers to the Internet for short periods, as needed. They do this by having their computer make a (with luck local) telephone call to a computer that is permanently connected to the Internet, e.g. a computer belonging to a so-called "Internet Access Provider" company. Such companies typically make a monthly charge, allowing unlimited Internet usage, of £10-£15, or alternatively charge according to the actual number of hours used. As a result, the Internet provides a very cheap and efficient means whereby people all over the world can communicate with each other. They can do this individually using electronic mail ("e-mail"), and can take part in collective discussions via electronic bulletin boards ("newsgroups") and mailing lists.

These methods of communication are significantly faster and cheaper than postal mail - they need no SAEs for a start! But the Internet is hugely significant also because of the (in many cases free) services provided by the computers that are linked by the Internet, and the amount and variety of interesting information they thus make available. (Note that by "information" we mean anything in digital form - text, pictures, music, movies, etc.)

The popularity and growth of the Internet is in large part due to the availability of free easy-to-use networking software. In particular, there is the software that has been used to create what is known as the World Wide Web. (Indeed, to many people the World Wide Web, or the Web for short, is the Internet.) The main forms of such software are so-called "browser" programs, such as Netscape or Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Web users can use such a browser to view, on their own computer screens, interlinked pages of information that are actually being held on various computers, all round the world, that are each running a Web "server" program. The Web is growing incredibly rapidly. Though only three years ago it barely existed one can now tell, from a computer-derived global index of the Web, that at least 280,000 such server computers are now involved in providing over 30 million pages of information! Users can browse through all this material, copying or printing any text or pictures of interest to them. They need not even be aware of the fact that multiple computers and computer networks are involved.

Such browsing simply involves selecting (typically using a computer "mouse") and "clicking" on a phrase or an image that is underlined and/or colour-coded to indicate that it is acting as a link. This causes the replacement of the page of information that is currently visible on the user's computer screen by the page that the link was pointing at. For example, Fig. 1 reproduces a "window" on a computer screen showing the initial page of GENUKI. If the user selects the underlined text "The UK and Ireland" and clicks on it then this page will be replaced in the window by the page shown in Fig. 2. If, as in both these cases, the page of information is larger than the window on the user's screen, scroll bars enable the desired part of the page to be made visible. (For some strange reason, the terminology that has become popular to describe the activity of fetching a sequence of pages, possibly from servers on very distant computers, is "exploring" (or even "surfing") the Web.)

 Fig. 1: GENUKI's Home page  Fig. 2: The UK & Ireland page

Users are not restricted just to using the Web to obtain information. Many of the pages on the Web act as fill-in forms, via which a user can very simply communicate information to his/her computer, and hence to the Internet. By such means users can, for example, request that a particular search be made in the University of California's five-million item union catalogue (which is especially rich in genealogy) or of the entire Web (e.g. for all Web pages within which a given word or phrase occurs). (The genealogy-related example shown in Fig. 3 is of part of the form provided to enable people to add their names, e-mail addresses, and research interests to Ronald Branscombe's lists of genealogists researching in Devon and Northumberland.)



Fig. 3: Surname Entry Submission Form

Nowadays many Internet Access Providers offer Web space on their computers. (This enables their customers to make information available on the Web without themselves needing to have their personal computers remain connected to the Internet.) As a result, many hundreds if not thousands of genealogists are already using the Web as a means of making their family trees, or more general information, freely available to other Internet users.

The Web has thus become a very effective new publishing medium, whose use is growing at an amazing rate. This is because it has some important advantages over conventional printed publication, being much faster, cheaper, and easier to update than paper-based publications - though not as convenient to read in bed! Indeed, the Web is providing a host of new opportunities (and challenges) to existing publishing channels.

The ability to incorporate words and phrases into a page that function as links to other pages, perhaps on other computers, is a crucial characteristic of the Web. Many people and organisations have constructed Web pages that consist of little more than a large set of links to information about a particular subject that is of interest to them. Some of these pages have become well-known resources in themselves, relied on by other Web users as their preferred way of locating information about that subject - such pages are sometimes termed "virtual libraries".

The original Internet tradition of making as much information as possible freely available, and of informal co-operative development of new free facilities, remains very much alive. However, there is also a rapidly growing use of the Web for delivering information that has to be paid for - for example by means of an annual subscription. (This is the case with GenServ, which for a very modest annual fee allows its users to perform automatic searches of a large collection of GEDCOM files, a collection that by December 1996 contained data on nearly six million individuals, with 232,000 different surnames, contributed by 3,500 genealogists.)

The GENUKI System

The aim of GENUKI is to serve as a large virtual reference library of genealogical information that is of particular relevance to the UK & Ireland. It is a free service, organised in co-operation with the FFHS and a number of its member societies, using computer resources that are kindly provided by various universities and now increasingly by individuals. Its front page can be found at the Web address:


The method of logical structuring that we have adopted to facilitate coping with the continued growth of GENUKI is based closely on the well-known method used by the huge Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and familiar to many genealogists through the CD-ROM version of their catalogue that is available at all LDS Family History Centres. The principal means of structuring used in our Information Service is therefore by means of what is, in the main, a four-level hierarchy corresponding to locality. The top level holds information related to the UK & Ireland as a whole, the next level information specific to England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. The third level of the hierarchy holds information of relevance to particular counties, the fourth level to parishes (or multi-parish towns), etc., within such counties. At each of the levels information is organised by subject.

The information that is provided in GENUKI mainly relates to primary historical material, rather than material resulting from genealogists' personal research, such as GEDCOM files. (Its role is therefore very different from Internet-based services such as GenServ, the Roots Surname List, and the soc.genealogy.surnames newsgroup that genealogists can use to find others researching the same family, and to exchange their research results.) Thus GENUKI 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.

The coverage of the different counties still varies considerably, depending on whether the relevant family history societies, and/or individual volunteers with appropriate specialist knowledge, have yet become actively involved. In the case of some counties, GENUKI already has been developed to the stage of having information about each and every parish. For example, thanks to the tireless efforts of a member of the Northumberland & Durham FHS, Brian Pears, GENUKI's coverage of Northumberland is particularly extensive. Detailed information is provided about the various libraries and record offices. Each parish's Web page if printed out would take several physical pages; in many cases a full index of the parish register is also provided. (Figures 4-6 show some of the information available for the parish of Ovingham, and the first part of a lengthy transcription of its marriage register.) It is estimated that a printed version of all the information in GENUKI on Northumberland would take nearly two thousand A4 pages.

 Fig. 4: Ovingham Parish - part 1  Fig. 5: Ovingham Parish - part 2



Fig. 6: Ovingham - marriage index

In addition we of course provide many links to material that can be found elsewhere on the Web - the GENUKI System is almost as valuable for the links it provides to information elsewhere as for the information that has been specially gathered and placed on one of our server machines. (For example we have a link to the free on-line gazetteer operated by the Ordnance Survey. This provides a very easy way of identifying the location of even small villages and hamlets.) In fact, our admittedly ambitious aim is to provide copies of, or links to, all the information of direct relevance to genealogy in the UK & Ireland that is available on-line anywhere. (At the start of the GENUKI project there was very little such on-line information, and virtually all of our efforts went into obtaining and making information available on one or other of our Web servers. )

But all this depends on volunteer effort. So any readers who can help in any way are warmly invited to contact us. (Our respective e-mail addresses are: Brian.Randell[at]newcastle.ac[dot]uk and P.Stringer[at]mcc.ac[dot]uk.) In particular, any who have their own allocation of Web space, are urged not just to use it to "publish" their own family tree. Rather, we would suggest that they use at least some of this Web space to make such detailed knowledge of particular topics and localities as they have gathered through their researches, and any general indexes and transcriptions they have compiled, available to their fellow genealogists via GENUKI. But it should be noted that the work involved is not solely that of transcribing or scanning information, and editing it for the Web, but also that of obtaining any necessary permissions from transcribers, copyright owners, etc. (Only by being careful to ensure that such matters are dealt with properly will we deserve to continue to receive support and co-operation from the PRO, the FFHS and other societies and organisations.)

GENUKI and Societies

By means of the Internet (in particular e-mail and the Web) a family history society can help members (and potential new members) of the society to gain much more benefit from membership, even if they do not have the good fortune to live near enough to be able to take full advantage of the society's library and meetings. Equally importantly, it also makes it much more practicable for such members to become actively involved in the work of the society, for example by taking part in indexing and transcribing projects.

Nearly 200 of the FFHS member societies covering various regions of the British Isles now have Web pages that are available via GENUKI. (These societies are identified in the official list of member societies - see inner back cover.) In many cases we have helped prepare the pages, and they are held in one of the GENUKI computers; in others the society has made its own arrangements for its pages to be created and made available on the Web. (Fig 7 shows the first of the Northumberland & Durham FHS's set of pages.) Such society pages typically provide some or all of the following: basic membership information and forms, announcements of coming events, library holdings, current computer projects, journal contents listings, members' research interests, lists of publications for sale, etc.



Fig. 7: Northumberland & Durham FHS

Societies that have made such information about themselves and their activities available on the Web have found that their membership and publications sales have increased quite noticeably as a result. Take for example, the Manchester and Lancs. FHS. They have Web pages, and an e-mail discussion list, on one of the GENUKI computers. The Web pages started out simply as a transcript of an information leaflet (normally made available through libraries, etc.) and a membership form. These pages, allied to the fact that the Society accepts credit card payments and has a Fax number, have proved particularly very successful in attracting overseas members - the Society now gets at least 10% of its new members via the Web membership form. (An additional advantage to the Society of providing information via the Web is the ease with which changes can be made - the membership form was updated within an hour of the Council deciding to charge an additional joining fee!)

The (members-only) e-mail discussion list has proved especially popular with people who do not live in the Manchester area, as they can e-mail queries to the list asking for local information and usually get a number of replies. Already about 200 members use this list and several have mentioned that they have renewed their membership simply because of the extra information they can now receive. As a result of experience with this mailing list, the Society now plans to have its own Internet address. Initially this will be used just to provide e-mail, as an alternative to use of the postal service. However further facilities are envisaged, such as provision via the Web of copies of the overheads and speaker notes used at Computer Group meetings, as an aid to members who cannot attend meetings. The Society also plans to host its own Web pages and to develop them much further - moving them off the GENUKI server will make it easier for more Society members to be involved in creating and updating pages. All this is part of a general move by the Manchester and Lancs FHS, now that a demand for the provision of Internet services has been demonstrated, from using the facilities originally provided via GENUKI, into a more active role.

Ideally, we believe each society should make all its computer-based information (such as register and census transcripts and indexes), advice and search services, etc., available over the Internet. However, though use of the Internet can enable significant savings on postal and printing costs, it is of course unreasonable to expect societies to provide all their information and services at no charge. One possible solution is for a society to provide on-line facilities that are restricted to use by members, and to charge members who wish to use these facilities an annual additional fee. Alternatively, effective and convenient means for making small payments over the Internet will soon make it practicable for societies to sell such services directly, and to the whole Internet community. In either case there is the possibility of the society gaining a valuable new source of income.

Looking perhaps a little further into the future, it would also be appropriate for societies to consider taking responsibility for the parts of GENUKI that relate to their area, and developing them at least as extensively as the present Northumberland pages. Indeed, we have made it clear from the start that we would welcome the FFHS, who are already being very co-operative with GENUKI, taking an increasing role in guiding and overseeing its overall direction and evolution.

GENUKI and Institutions

It is hardly surprising that many forward-looking librarians and archivists are actively planning to provide public access to their collections, and their professional services, via the Internet. Indeed, the PRO, the British Library, many university libraries, and several record offices already have their own Web servers. GENUKI volunteers have, in a number of cases, assisted librarians and archivists who wish to provide information about their facilities and holdings on the Web. They have done this by creating Web pages, e.g. by scanning a library's information leaflets, and placing these pages in their own Web space or on one of the main GENUKI servers, until the library can acquire space for itself.

It is our belief that, particularly through the activities of libraries and archives, the impact of the Internet on the practice of genealogy will be much more dramatic and rapid than, for example, that of microfilm - which first came into use in some libraries as far back as the 1930s. There are already very large bodies of transcribed historical material and growing numbers of scanned digital images on the Internet. Indeed, continued advances in the storage and transmission of digital information make it extremely likely that such digital imaging will in the end largely replace microfilming (just as CDs have replaced long-playing records, and digital cameras are starting to replace conventional cameras), though we expect much material will remain on microfilm or microfiche, just as much material still has yet to be microfilmed.

The growing availability of scanned digital images is particularly exciting - the cover pictures, reproduced here by courtesy of the Powys Archive Service, show two pages obtained from their Web server, one with a transcription from the Quarter Session Records of 1796, the other a high definition digital image of the original document. (With a Web browser, this second page is reached simply by clicking on the small image of the document in the top left hand corner of the first page.)

Another example, which space limitations prevent us showing here, is the on-line digital image of the Magna Carta from the British Library. Starting with a picture which shows the entire document, one can select part of the image, and click on it, so as to have the currently visible image replaced by a 4-times magnified version of that part. This process can be repeated until one has zeroed in on just a few highly magnified letters.

But perhaps the best example at present, from a genealogist's point of view, of an on-line archive is a Web server in the USA devoted to the history of the Civil War (at http://jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU/vshadow2/). This provides a very large collection of high-definition maps, pictures and digital images of original documents, plus transcriptions of these documents, plus a search service by means of which one can search the text of these documents for particular surnames. We look forward to the day when major archives on this side of the Atlantic provide similar Internet access to their holdings.

Concluding Remarks

Having made all these positive statements about the use of the Internet for genealogy, it is only fair to look at the other side of the coin. As is the case with computers, not everyone can afford to, or will wish to, use the Internet. Experienced genealogists rightly complain that Internet users who are new to genealogy often naively assume that they can do all their researching via the Internet, or even expect to find that this research has already been done, and that a list of their ancestors is theirs for the asking. (One can, however, draw an unfortunate parallel to the way in which many beginners misuse the IGI and Family Search!) The Internet is not making books and paper records instantly obsolete. Microfilm and microfiche collections remain of great value. And conversing with people face to face is normally better than communicating with them solely via e-mail or an electronic bulletin board.

However, the Internet is already an extremely valuable additional tool for individual genealogists. The Internet is especially useful to those who live far from any major libraries or archives, not least for the great amount of expert (and inexpert!) free advice and help they can and do receive from other genealogists via the Internet. Its potential to help societies improve the way they serve their members, and libraries and archives their customers, is immense. Thus we urge all in positions of authority and influence in the world of UK and Irish genealogy to view the Internet as an opportunity to be grasped eagerly, not as a threat whose consequences they should try to ignore or downplay.