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Hot Summer, Hot Tempers for French Genealogists

Outrage

French genealogists' tempers are most high, these days. The past ten days, the weather has been insufferably hot, but the genealogists may not have noticed, their rage is so inflamed. Their fury is directed at Notre Famille.

Last month, we reported here that the battle was on to be the first to have commercial control of indexed images of French parish and civil registers. Notre Famille was pressing hard on departmental archives to give their agreement. Not long before that, we explained about the intensive use by genealogy associations of Minitel, a moribund technology. The genealogy sites on Minitel were managed by a company called SWIC, which has been bought by  -- guess who? -- Notre Famille. They have shut down all of the genealogy databases on Minitel (which had to happen anyway, as Minitel is fading fast) and have put all of the extracts onto their own website: www.genealogie.com, a subscription site.

Why the outrage? These databases are comprised of millions of extracts of names, dates, places and events taken from parish and civil registers in departmental archives before the internet. The work was done by volunteer members of genealogy circles and associations. Initially, the extracts were printed in booklets and sold, thus financing the activities of the circles. Then, with Minitel, the volunteers created the databases and entered all of the data. They charged a small fee for access, which covered the costs of the operation. Now, they feel that their volunteer work has been stolen to be sold for someone else's profit. Of course, Notre Famille says they are not claim-jumping; they are rescuing data that would be lost with the demise of Minitel.

Notre Famille has also applied to receive some of the government's 33 million euro package to encourage research and development, particularly in education. President Toussaint Roze claims that using that money to digitize more of the archives holdings will help to prevent Google's megalomaniacal fingers reaching any deeper into France's heritage. Clever one, that. 

National heritage, la patrimoine, is the term that gets tossed about with high emotion, as more and more people protest that it is being privatised. When we were young, we had the fine fortune to grow up on the shores of a lake of heartbreaking beauty. We spent our summer days at the public beaches, swimming, boating, working our summer jobs. A few years ago, we returned for the first visit in decades, and took our children to the beaches. At one after another, we were told to leave, in one case by an old chum from elementary school, who explained: "There aren't any public beaches anymore, Annie. It's all private." There are fewer and fewer public beaches in Hawaii for the same reason. The town commons in England and in New England is no more. Genealogy in France has been up to now a similar communal sharing of a resource that belonged to all. 

Were this a different country, there would be no doubt as to what the result of this tussle would be, but France is a funny place. The Gallic character is neither Anglo-Saxon nor Latin, and the drama that we are watching will be neither blunt nor operatic; it will follow its own, stunningly weird but perfectly rational logic to the end.

Update: The Association of French Archivists, AAF, has issued a statement firmly against Notre Famille's plans, without naming that company specifically, on the grounds of the privacy violation that such a commercial centralisation of documentation would pose. They point out that Notre Famille has requested from departmental archives permission to make digital copies not only of census records, conscription lists and civil registrations up to 1930, but also :

  • prisoner lists
  • electoral lists
  • lists of foreigners and refugees in the 19th and 20th centuries
  • World War I veterans' cards, with photographs
  • identity cards (which also include photographs) from 1940
  • hospital registers, including those for psychiatric hospitals
No one has yet questioned the archiving of some of these records in the first place. As the subject blossoms into the whole area of individual vs. the state and the state's documentation on an individual vs. privacy, this gets more interesting by the minute.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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