Access to the UK census is dependent, admittedly at one remove, on the owner of those other national institutions, The Beano, The Dandy, and the Sunday Post newspaper and its national treasures, “The Broons” and “Oor Wullie”.. Richard Rodger
Looking back…and forward, Scotland’s census is crucial to understanding the lives of the people who make the nation. It is a vital resource for policy makers and service providers in our present time, and equally essential to historians exploring who we were and how we got here. As we await the delayed Scottish 2021 census, due to take place in March this year at greatly increased cost, the national (UK) 1921 census is published online by DC Thomson, in a contract with the National Archives. But why do we have to pay to see it? Historian Richard Rodger questions the commercial and ‘personal’ interests keeping digitised historic censuses behind a paywall.
Why are historic censuses not free and open to all?
Have you come across such terms as ‘Open Data’, ‘Open Access’ or even ‘Open Government’? ‘Accountability’ and ‘transparency’ are bandied about by local government and Scottish government bodies. But saying it does not mean doing it. Repeating it is not enough. Good intentions need execution.
So you might think that when in 2019 the Scottish Government published A Culture Strategy for Scotland it might have had something to say something about ‘Archives’ – the written cultural gold mine of our nation. But no! Not a single reference to ‘archives’, ‘historical records’, or the National Records of Scotland in A Culture Strategy for Scotland.
So is that it? Don’t we value our records any longer? No culture strategy for written assets? Or worse, are our top civil servants in the National Records of Scotland so weak they meekly waived through a document with no reference to the historical assets they are there to protect. And should not our history professors and other senior cultural figures have something to say about this? That’s right. Register House, a purpose built repository for the documentary record of Scotland of such importance that it was the first thing to be built in the New Town is not worth a single mention in a major policy document. Shameful.
But that’s not all. You might think that with a commitment to Open Data, Open Access, blah blah …from the Scottish Government and Local Councils we would be able to consult Census records from 150 years ago. You might think that having paid your taxes, local and national, that you would be able to consult the digital version of the Census online. Locked down as a nation we might have been able to consult historical records. Instead we were locked out! Or do I mean lucked out?!
Find my past…for a fee
Well local historians will tell you – you can consult records on line. True – up to a point. You can pay through Ancestry.com and Findmypast and you can consult individual records on a pay per view basis. This is OK if you (a) have the money (b) have some initial leads (c) accept the errors and imperfections in the transcribed records (d) want to consult English census records, because they include 1911 (unlike Scotland) and also provide digital versions of the originals (unlike Scotland). You also need to be vigilant. The quality of the farmed out transcription is really dreadful. For example, in Edinburgh, ‘Bucclench’ is used. For Buccleuch Street look for Bucclench; for Darnaway Street look for ‘Warnaway.’ OK – not too difficult to spot if you are from Edinburgh. Here was an excellent chance to farm out checking personal names and Scottish place names to local historians and genealogists. Dereliction at the contractual level, and at the implementation stage.
But historical research is more than pursuing individuals. It is about understanding society. What was the average family size; most common occupations; what percentage of women were household heads; and many other interesting questions? These cannot, I repeat, CANNOT be addressed with current arrangements and so access to the Census actively impairs an understanding of Scotland and Scottish society.
You can download UK Census data from this digital census databank. But there is an approval system to see the entire dataset. Two ‘safeguarding’ tests have to be passed. One is whether access to names and addresses is prejudicial to ‘personal’ interests. This is rarely invoked for the historical census. The other is safeguarding the ‘commercial’ interests at stake!! In the case of the historical census, ‘commercial interests’ are cited in order to protect the digital investment made under a contractual agreement between The National Archives (TNA, Kew, London) and DC Thomson Media, to which the National Records of Scotland (NRS) at General Register House, Edinburgh is party.
Yes, you did not mis-read that: access to the UK census is dependent, admittedly at one remove, on the owner of those other national institutions, The Beano, The Dandy, and the Sunday Post newspaper and its national treasures, “The Broons” and “Oor Wullie”.
Through these commercial arrangements DC Thomson Media control access to ‘Findmypast’, the search engine which private researchers and professional genealogists use and pay for to pursue their historical interests. Making the Census Count
Nowadays, as in the past, we are routinely asked for our ‘name and address’ for almost all transactions and relationships. Linking common data fields is a key tool to enriching historical analysis and to forfeit ‘name’ and ‘address’ is to diminish the productivity of many non-Census sources which can be nominally linked. That happens everyday to us so where is the concern for historical records say between 1851 and 1911? And rather than safeguarding commercial interests should not the contract to digitise the Census be safeguarding our historical interests?
What’s in a name?
In a recent paper I have written about these issues, “Making the Census Count: Edinburgh 1760-1900″ for the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, three examples are used to show how access to names and addresses enriches historical understanding. One example utilises the Census of Edinburgh to identify the ‘Top 10’ popular male and female names in 1861 (see below). This is impossible without access to the full digital census. You will never have seen anything like this analysis. Another example considers Alfred McNightingale’s addresses over forty years to understand his employment patterns. A third illustration considers a selection of Old Town Closes in 1861 and 1891 in order to reveal how household size and composition was affected, if at all, by the demolitions initiated under the ‘Improvement’ Act of 1867. None of these strands, and many others, can be undertaken without access to nominal records. I am fortunate to have been given access to the names and addresses. But why should others be excluded?
The interests of local historians, genealogists, students and academic historians are adversely affected by current arrangements. The inability to harvest quantities of data from the Census impairs social, economic, cultural, demographic and social science history generally. It limits local interests and civic engagement by denying a legitimate interest in local themes and general trends. School projects and undergraduate dissertations are limited and, at a time when digital resources are a godsend, the general public cannot engage with Census data to advance their own historical interests. Of greater significance perhaps are questions such as: How can the histories of a nation be written without access to the core data – the inhabitants and their locations?
This article is republished with permission of the author and Cockburn Association
Featured image: Oor Wullie outside the McManus Museum in Dundee, photo Fay Young
Further reading: Richard Rodger’s full length article “Making the Census Count: Revealing Edinburgh 1760–1900″ Journal of Scottish Historical Studies
The central theme here is that under present arrangements Scottish historians and the Scottish public are denied access a crucial publicly-funded historical source, and that a ‘pay-as-you go’ approach is inappropriate for access to archival materials. No other European country applies such a policy.
Audit Scotland: Scotland’s delayed census making good progress but challenges remain.
Financial Times: Census publication shows DC Thomson pinning future on family pasts
Fay Young says
I’m personally interested in Richard Rodger’s article (and a great wealth of research into urban history). I’m beginning to explore the history of the house that has been a family home for many years but it is frustratingly difficult to access information online, and Covid has restricted access to the libraries.
It seems ironic that my home was built in 1861 – the year of Scotland’s first census. The deeds give promising glimpses but essential information takes a lot of digging. And that will cost both time and money. For example, though the deeds reveal that the builder died in debt just over a year after completing the house, it has taken six ScotlandsPeople credits simply to produce his death certificate. Tantalisingly, it confirms that the poor man died at home (in our house) of ‘lung and stomach disease’ aged 55.
I have incentive to find out more. But how many people are being denied access to information which should be freely available, and what will be the consequences? As Richard Rodger says: “historical research is more than pursuing individuals. It is about understanding society.”
Fay Young says
“It’s a strange world.” a friend comments on my Facebook posting of this story.
” Private institutions such as Wikipedia have exponentially increased the public’s access to information while, at the same time, public bodies, the National Archives in this instance, are deliberately restricting access to information (collected and maintained at public expense) for financial gain. The real scandal is not so much that DC Thomson is charging for access to these public records but that the state has granted it a monopoly to do so. Anyway, many thanks to Richard Rodger for this excellent article”
The answer to that question could be found in Further Reading at the end of the article – the Financial Times story by Daniel Thomas indicates that this is a lucrative contract which benefits both DC Thomson’s FindMyPast and National Archives:
FindMyPast (one of DC Thomson’s fastest growing operations) has more than 13m registered users and offers a subscription service allowing users to research their families and homes. ‘However it has changed this model for the 1921 census: users need to pay for individual records, which has caused anger among some historians…’
The fees, says FindMyPast CEO Tamsin Todd, are shared with the National Archives. Which would suggest a lasting relationship.
Michael Heaon says
I support this iniquitous approach to ‘public access’ to these records.
Bit, it seems to me that the villain of the piece is National Archives who, presumably having no funds or expertise, callen in FMP
Fay Young says
Yes, indeed, the thrust of Richard Rodger’s article is that responsibility lies with National Archives (England) and the National Records of Scotland NRS – they are to blame for ‘selling off the Crown Jewels, (census data) and, not surprisingly, ScotlandsPeople and FindMyPast are taking advantage of a public asset.
Gareth Jones says
It used to be and maybe still is the case that researchers could access freely the paper-ish records in the various reading rooms around the nation, of which there weren’t many. That was a very difficult process and while free at the point of inspection it cost people a lot in terms of time, transport and the like. Whoosh…internet…the mega increase in family history interest. Now, don’t be surprised that public bodies seek to cash in the goldmine they’ve just discovered. The private companies ready and eager to assist them in this were just waiting.