Margaret May discussed projects the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages (BDM) has worked on over the years and what its future holds.
Eighty-six full time staff registered 77,500 births, 38,500 deaths and 29,000 marriages in the past year. Half a million certificates, of which fifty per cent were unrestricted, were issued. A team of volunteers help in transcribing the historical records which are vital to us as genealogists.
Prior to 1st July 1853, the date the Registry was established, the only records of christenings, marriages and burials were those kept by churches. The Early Church Records Project was a task which involved indexing and digitising these records. There had been a requirement for churches to provide their records to the Registry back in 1860 but many churches did not and so these records are incomplete. Even so, 76,000 records were digitised externally and another 4,000 records which came from the Anglican and Catholic churches in Geelong were digitised in-house by volunteers.
The records varied in quality and they varied as to what information was provided depending on whether the records were church returns of the actual church registers. Obviously the digital images captured were only as good as the original.
The idea was to have this information in a DVD-Rom format with additional information about the actual churches included for historical interest. The project took about 10 years and had mixed success because many records were missing, the records held didn't necessarily provide much information and there was a limited market. In hindsight the project was probably too ambitious.
Technology has moved on so quickly that the format of the DVDs produced, and similarly the format of the 'Digger' indexes cannot be used on new 64-bit computers. Some people have been lucky enough to keep an old computer in order to access these records otherwise they can only be searched at libraries which hold genealogy records.
It has become apparent that it is not viable for the Registry to produce programs for a limited audience and so it is unlikely that further DVD-Roms will be made.
In the 1980s the Registry sent 13 million records to data entry organisations to be copied into a digital format which was then stored on the BDMs first computer system. The records were originally held in books and index books were used to tell you which book to look at. Some of the index books were hand written and others typed. Transcriptions of hand written indexes, and electronic scanning or character recognition (OCR) of typed indexes produced errors at a rate of about 2.5%. The 'Digger' DVDs were produced from these indexes.
Since 1989 there have been no physical register books.
The Burial Project which has been going for about 10 years is effectively correcting errors in the online death indexes.
In the first phase of this project, the index of death records from 1853 - 1920 was checked against the original records, and corrected with additional information provided. As the project has progressed more information has been added such as place of birth and parents' names including mother's maiden name. The place of death names are no longer abbreviated as they were not always very helpful. A 4 letter abbreviation 'Ball' might mean Ballan or Ballarat. 'Melb' could actually be substituted for Sth. Yarra.
Sometimes people's names were abbreviated or a name left out if a person had several first names. Abbreviations such as 'Jno' for John, 'Thos' for Thomas, etc. will no longer exist.
Although called a Burial Project, the expanded details which are going online on the death index do not include burial information. The aim of the Registry is to collect the burial details and make this information available to cemetery trusts as many cemeteries do not have their early records for a variety of reasons.
Community expectations are now much higher as more and more information becomes available over the internet. Many indexes in other Australian States can be viewed free with a cost if an original record is required. The Victorian BDM website has a fee to view the indexes as well as to purchase the original record. The intention is to remove the fee to search the index but that is proving to be difficult.
There has been a 20% drop in requests for historical certificates in the past year which is interesting. Perhaps not being able to search the'Digger' indexes at home has turned people to other records. Information on a birth or death can often be found for free in the newspapers which are online on sites like 'Trove.' Newspaper death records can provide names of children, siblings, sometimes parents. Funeral notices provide place and date of burial, and names of funeral directors.
The updated death index for 1983 - 1988 and prior to 1968 is already online. The index from 1965 - 1982 is being checked at the moment and will be completed in 3 years. The Registry, being a small agency might consider the need to work with other organisations such as Ancestry.com and Findmypast in the future to make its records as accessible as possible.
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