Family History in the Time of Coronavirus

Imagine. It is 1995 and the world is facing a coronavirus pandemic. The country is locking down. You will be confined to your home for weeks. How are you going to spend your time? Well, not researching your family history for a start. Record offices and local studies libraries have closed and will remain closed for months. Your favourite family history society no longer meets, so you can't get together to share your experience. That indexing project you were working on? You now cannot get at the source material. How about catching up on your reading? Sorry, the bookshops are closed too.

Few would say that there was anything positive about the coronavirus pandemic, but family historians can, at least, give thanks that it arrived in 2020 and not twenty-five years earlier. Family history has gone online and for many family historians a more positive side of the pandemic is that they now have time to spend on those research problems.

Basic resources are available online. Civil registration indexes are widely available, even if the issuing of certificates has slowed down. Census returns and probate indexes are online too as well as a substantial number of parish registers either as scanned copies or as transcripts, not to mention other rich resources such as digitised newspapers. Maybe not all of the material you need to solve every problem, but enough to keep most of us busy. Need help? MLFHS has opened its Virtual Help Desk to provide one-to-one support and our Member Forum has never been more active.

Our project work was badly affected, particularly the large-scale indexing connected with the LancashireBMD indexes and other projects which required access to records or facilities in locked-down locations, but this was no reason for our important work to improve access to useful resources had to stop entirely. We soon had a project up and running to expand our already extensive index of burials in Greater Manchester graveyards. Many of the registers have been scanned and can be accessed online through Family Search and so burials for four more graveyards have already been indexed with a fifth under way; over fifty thousand burials already and rising all the time.

Some of our members also saw opportunities to open up new resources. Geoff Edge proposed the indexing of names appearing in the wills and administrations of testators who lived and died in Manchester. It is pretty simple to find out if your ancestor left a will but if he or she was a beneficiary or executor named in someone else's will then their connection with the deceased is unlikely to ever come to light. Geoff's index will change all that. The index is already complete from 1812 to 1818 and work is in progress to extend it to 1837. Linda Bailey saw the benefit of an index to births, marriages, deaths, obituaries and inquests published in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser and has already indexed over 6,000 events from the1820, 1837 and 1895 issues.

There was clearly pent-up demand for good family history reading and resources on CDROM. We had to close our online bookshop when we could not access our bookshop stock, but once were able to re-open in late June, orders received in the first four weeks were comparable to those received in three months of pre-covid-19 business.

And we used the time to learn some new tricks. Our experience of Zoom meetings hints at the possibility that we might use video-conferencing to deliver some of our talks. Another way in which we found video useful was to record several short "Hints from the Helpdesk" videos to variously promote the use of The National Archives' information leaflets, to show how to get more out of the 1841 and 1911 census returns and how to get the best value for money out of DNA testing. We will be using this very effective medium more in the future.

So, family history in the time of coronavirus? As Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Family historians have risen to the opportunities to advance their research and we will emerge from the crisis stronger than ever.

John Marsden