The standard story of globalisation is that economies of scale, accumulation of ‘talent’ and creative use of international tax law permit giant transnational corporations to reach extraordinary levels of profitability, which are then used to out-compete smaller local players and either crush them or absorb them.
How does this apply in genealogy? In Ireland, on first sight at least, the standard story seems to be in action. Ancestry.com and FindMyPast, the Coke™ and Pepsi™ of global genealogy, are indeed using their technical know-how, deep pockets and extraordinary marketing muscle to carve out territory and stamp their brands on Irish records.
For bread-and-butter research, there’s no doubt it’s working. I now use both services almost every day, in a way that I would have found inconceivable even two years ago. The range and depth of digitised records they offer is beyond the capacity of even the most dedicated Irish public or private institution and there is no doubt that they are swimming with the tide of economic history.
So should we all just accept our fate? They’re certainly not going away any time soon. But I think there are flaws in the way they can work that actually feed the ecosystem in which local record providers can thrive.
First, the sheer, cussed, devil-in-the-detail gnarliness of genealogy means that the more the service is standardised, the less it actually meets the needs of researchers, and standardisation is the be-all and end-all of globalised corporations. Believe me, there is no frustration like the frustration of knowing a source, knowing the information it might hold, and being forced to fish through a keyhole for it by a one-size-fits-all search interface (FindMyPast, I’m looking at you).
Second, the drift towards monopoly that seems to be an inevitable feature of globalised tech corporations means that intelligent usability is often an afterthought. The people making crucial management decisions are managers and marketers, with their attention on stockholders and the competition, not on the genealogists who are their customers. The business model seems to consist simply of hoovering up as many record-sets as possible, with no concern for making them intelligible (Ancestry, step forward).
To put it bluntly, the more databases they add, the stupider they get.
Contrast this with the (belated but very welcome) agility of a small, purely Irish commercial service like rootsireland. In the last year, it has dropped prices, allowed precision research using surname only, introduced a place-names search in church registers and added swathes of new civil and church records. The service is unrecognisable from the one that existed two years ago, largely, I think, because of the impact of the global genealogy giants.
On the public service side too, gorgeously non-standardised searches proliferate, allowing the slicing and dicing of information from censuses, directories, church and civil records in ways simply not available in the global giants’ services.
So by all means use Ancestry or FindMyPast to plug gaps – surname variants on the Archives census site or Askaboutireland, missing parishes for rootsireland, Irish Quaker records – but if you need to know the name of every deaf blacksmith in Ireland in 1911, there’s still only one place to go.