The Minitel Headache
About a century ago, in our youth, we wore a different hat and wrote on a different subject. One of our columns was on the then quite innovatory Minitel. That article is not online, and was undoubtedly too flippant anyway, so this link is to an excellent description of it on Absolute Astronomy. As it says there, Minitel "is considered one of the world's most successful pre-World Wide Web online services." France was completely web savvy before the web existed.
Minitel began in 1982. Everyone who wanted one was given a free terminal, which operated on the telephone lines. All businesses had Minitel sites and there was a booming Minitel commerce. Many cercles also set up Minitel sites and data bases, the biggest probably being GENLOR, which had over a million extracts of parish and civil registers for the region of Lorraine. These databases charged a fee by the minute and brought in a tidy income in their heyday.
The web killed Minitel, and it has been a long, slow death, riddled with the -- this time inappropriate -- thinking of résistance. Minitel still exists. Its website says that it can be accessed via the internet. Don't you believe it. In spite of a site full of promises, the download does not work on 32 bit or 64 bit PCs; it does not work on Windows Vista or Windows 7; and it certainly does not work on anything Apple ever produced.
We like dinosaurs and were keen to give Minitel its last days of glory (and to get to GENLOR), so we went to the local France Telecom shop. Yes, indeed, they told us, it is still possible to rent a Minitel terminal and use it with the telephone line. No, it will not work if the telephone line has broadband; you must put in another telephone line. The penny for that was too pretty and our enthusiasm drooped. Yet, a number of cercles adhere to Minitel, simply because they do not have the volunteers (or the heart, perhaps?) to re-enter all of that data onto a new website. What will happen to all of that fine work when Minitel finally rolls over with its paws in the air is anyone's guess at this point.
Is time running out for and technology running away from the cercles? No, for they are clubs of enthusiasts still. Inevitably, creative minds find new ideas and projects. Some cercles are reaching beyond the basic birth/marriage/death information, and this is to the good. In Cantal, the cercle is building a website and database on emigrants from that region and is actively encouraging contributions from all over the world. In Le Havre, cercle volunteers are indexing over 40,000 maritime records and passenger lists of vessels that left that port in the last 120 years or so.
However, not all cercles have a stash of emigrant records. With the final demise of Minitel and the possible agreement of the Archives de France with FamilySearch that would put all of France's microfilmed parish and civil registers online for free, their income will be drastically reduced and they will be able to undertake fewer projects, which is a pity. If you want to do your good French genealogy deed for the day, join a cercle or two.
©2010 Anne Morddel