Recently on the Rootsweb list there was discussion about the availability of Devon, England parish registers online. Several people offered suggestions about where information might be found. Some lamented on the fact that there was no one site where they could go to see all the records. All the comments about and leading up to this subject can be found in the DEVON-L Archives for September.
By the way, these kinds of lists are great for continuing discussions on various subjects, in particular specific families and research techniques. I know many people are moving to social media outlets such as Facebook but I find the Rootsweb and other similar discussion forums valuable because each message is delivered right to my inbox. And I can choose which area, subject or even names I want to connect with on different lists.
Of particular note, though, was the response from Terry Leaman, the Chairman of the Devon Family History Society (DFHS), who commented about what was available on the Society’s website for members and the great work that has been done by volunteers over many decades to make data accessible for researchers.
I thought Terry’s comments were worth reproducing here. I have benefited from having information transcribed by DFHS members. I have also done a lot of transcribing of parish registers and censuses in the Devon region and know about the time it takes to go through the hundreds of pages of records and decipher hard-to-read entries.
Because I do not live anywhere near Devon, I really appreciate the work that DFHS members have done over the years, especially the locals some of whom I know have spent countless hours in the archives offices. Membership in the DFHS is one I find of great value and will definitely keep.
What people need to understand is that, whilst it is a legal requirement for parish registers to be housed in a suitable storage facility, it is not a requirement to put them online. Many of the indexes/transcriptions on FindMyPast (FMP) that are not linked to images came from the Devon Family History Society and are the work of volunteers over a forty year period.
Family History Societies were some of the first organisations to start indexing registers that were not permitted to be filmed by the LDS. Most of the IGI for Devon at that time was the result of filming published books by the likes of the Devon & Cornwall Record Society.
The DFHS continues to index data not available online at this time. This includes the 52 parishes for which the images are in the members' only area of the Society website. The LDS were refused permission to film these but Devon FHS were allowed to. There are two parishes where permission has been totally refused to digitise the registers.
DFHS volunteers are also working on the Methodist registers in both North Devon and Exeter record offices, as well as a number of civil cemeteries- Torquay & Ford Park Cemeteries are already on FMP thanks to DFHS volunteers.
It is a major concern that Family History Societies are losing members because of online resources, Family History Societies (out of public view) constantly liaise with Record Offices or in the case of Devon and Somerset with the South West Heritage Trust, to ensure that family history is not forgotten, BUT if they don't survive who will step forward to fill the gap? Who will continue indexing those obscure records that would not otherwise be done- see the Devon Social records on FMP.
As to transcription errors, if you could see some of the atrocious writing that is encountered you would understand why errors happen. One register we've encountered recently looks like the writing is upside down and back to front- IT IS honestly that bad. It is easy IF you are looking for a specific name in a parish. It's a lot easier to read something if you know what it should say.
Terry was describing the efforts and trials of the Devon society but his comments probably equally apply to every other family history society.
If you are using and getting a lot out of transcriptions perhaps you might think about volunteering to do some of that work. You do not have to live close to where the societies are to help.