FGB Free Clinic - Case No. 7 - Gleanings From Foundling Documents
GENCO 2016

The Current Turf War in French Genealogy Circles


We have observed that the modern French psyche would seem to suffer an occasionally debilitating dichotomy: on the one hand, there is a commitment to democracy, community, unity, and to the state improving society for all, while on the other, there is a profound conservatism in its simplest form of resistance to all change, particularly change that is not directed or controlled by the central authority, though even that can be resisted vociferously. The struggle between these two positions is playing out in many different aspects of French life at any one time. It was so this summer and is still an aspect of a flurry of online blog posts and tweets about genealogy cercles, (associations or clubs) in France, in particular in what is becoming a turf war over the indexing of archives.

It began in July with an interview of the new president of the Fédération Française de la Généalogie (FFG), Thierry Chestier, on Famicity and elsewhere. In it, he told of how he first became interested in genealogy, how he came to be president of the FFG, and of his vision and plan for the future of the organisation. His first goal is to campaign against the government's economising plan to stop the two hundred year old procedure of two copies of civil registers being maintained (lutter contre la suppression du 2ème exemplaire du registre de l’état civil). His second goal is to increase the value and importance, as well as the number of genealogy associations/cercles within the FFG (valoriser les associations), pointing out that now genealogy is "the third most popular pastime in France". (We cannot find his reasoning for this. Statista puts number three as "going out with friends", after "listening to music" and "watching television". Perhaps he thinks all the people going out with friends are going to genealogy association meetings? Other activities in which genealogy as a pastime might be hidden come even lower down the list: "surfing the Internet" is seventh, "cultural outings"  -- could this be archives visits? -- is tenth, "going on social networks" is even lower.) 

Then came the bone of contention:

"We are seeing a competition around [the activities of] genealogy associations from commerce and from the archives' services. There are archives that offer the opportunity for [collaborative] indexing when that is the role of the associations. Just imagine if the associations were to disappear, and genealogists having to pay for access to records. The associations are important for creating a social link."

Many interpreted this as his saying that the collaborative indexing now possible on some Departmental Archives websites should be banned and reserved as the province of the genealogy associations only.

Two days later, the ripostes began, in some very high dudgeon. Sophie Boudarel was at the forefront of the charge with "Is the French Federation of Genealogy Opposed to Collaborative Indexing?" This was quickly picked up by Roland of Lorand.org, who pointed out that he had done such indexing for his local genealogy association but quit in annoyance because he felt the results should be offered freely, while the association was charging a fee for people to access them. Then, Brigitte Snejkovsky of the blog "Chroniques D'Antan et D'Ailleurs" asked more threateningly : "Can Collaborative Indexing Kill Off the Genealogy Associations?". Some of these bloggers are themselves contributing their excellent skills to collaborative indexing.

For many, the discussion centres on the new, in the guise of online, collaborative indexing, as opposed to the old, being the genealogy associations and their funky little booklets of extracts that have to be ordered by post and paid for by cheque, town by town, until a researcher hits on the right one. The genealogy associations see themselves as the equivalent of a historian who sees his or her well-researched book, self-published and printed at great personal expense and representing years of unfunded research in archives, suddenly given away for free as a PDF all over the Internet because someone scanned it and uploaded it because he "believed" that "history should be free for everyone" and is too moronic to understand the difference between the information in historical documents and a reasoned, knowledgeable, historical analysis of it.

They have used the Internet -- via Bigenet and Geneabank -- not to spread their indices, but to try to ensure that they continue to receive revenue for their work. Yet, those bloggers who are outraged by the position taken by Monsieur Chestier represent the modern genealogy community that does work together to index masses of documents and to make the results available to all at no cost. They rightly see their work as a voluntary and very significant contribution to French genealogy.

These essays were followed by that of the sober Guillaume, who writes the blog of FranceGenWeb, who emphasised that there is a great difference between good and bad indexing and that this difference was the real point of the discussion. He is right but has been pretty much ignored in the shouting match.

Compare the collaborative indexing of the United States Federal Census, with its hundreds of -- at times -- preposterous mistakes. Names wrong, ages wrong, sexes wrong, with corrections, sometimes numerous, sometimes also wrong, sometimes littered with disputes, as if indexing a historical document were akin to drafting a Wikipedia article. Compare also with the indexing of the Drouin Collection by subcontractors who neither spoke nor read nor wrote French, let alone eighteenth century French, producing, again, something with hundreds of incomprehensible errors.

What those who pantingly state that speed is more important than accuracy do not understand is that certain things, indices and dictionaries among them, must be one hundred percent correct to be of any worth at all. If a user knows that an index has a ten percent error rate, then the whole thing is useless, as he or she cannot know which ten per cent is the rubbish to ignore. Are the bloggers above, all of them highly skilled and knowledgeable and surely indexers of skill and thoroughness, considering that not all are as conscientious as they? Do they consider that indexing by untrained volunteers could be worse than no indexing at all?  If collaborative indexing cannot be error free, Monsieur Chestier is correct to protest it for, by virtue of volume, it will overwhelm the indices and extracts produced by the genealogy associations, resulting in the demise not only of those associations, but of reliable indices to parish and civil registrations across France. Know with certainty that this would be a loss, not a gain.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy