Current Campaigns – General Register Office
A report on the
GENERAL REGISTER OFFICE
compiled by the
COUNCIL OF IRISH GENEALOGICAL ORGANISATIONS (CIGO)
15 December 1999.
The following report was submitted to the Minister for Health & Children, whose Department is responsible for the General Register Office
The General Register Office is one of the principal repositories of genealogical records in Ireland, and under legislation dating from 1844 it is obliged to provide a public search service. As a consequence it has long been used by family historians (most of them overseas visitors to the country) and professional genealogists.
Up to the late 1980s it was busy during the tourist season and relatively quiet at other times. Users of the Public Search Room (PSR) paid a search fee (particular or general) for access to a set of annual indexes to the registered births, deaths and marriages. The service in the PSR was provided by three staff members who took search fees, gave basic guidance on using the indexes and, for an additional fee, provided photocopies of the records.
Particular searches allow access to the indexes covering a five year period. General searches entitle users to six consecutive hours of access to the indexes. A staff member hands out the index volumes for a particular search. The main advantage of the general search is that users may help themselves to the volumes from the shelves. This saves them from queuing for assistance and frees the staff members to provide photocopies. The provision of on-the-spot photocopies is essential in the light of these search fees. It allows users to determine the relevance of a particular record and to continue their search. It relieves the GRO of the obligation of providing time consuming hand-written certificates for such researchers. The photocopying service, which is essential to time limited tourists who have come to Ireland specifically to trace ancestry, has long been the one feature of the GRO that has stood in its favour. It aids research immeasurably in comparison with, for example, the GRO for England & Wales where no such service is offered and searches can only be continued after applying for a certificate. However, the GRO for England & Wales makes its indexes available free of charge and it is currently reviewing ways to create easier public access to its older records.
In August 1987 a lunch time closure of one and three-quarter hours was introduced with the result that for over twelve years the GRO has been open for only five and a quarter hours a day. This is in contravention of its statutory obligation to provide search facilities for at least six consecutive hours per day. These reduced opening hours, coupled with fluctuating staffing levels and an enormous increase in the number of users (including the many Irish now researching their family history), has contributed to the PSR becoming extremely busy throughout the entire year.
Despite the numerous submissions made to the Department and the various meetings held between representatives of users of the PSR and senior GRO staff over the last decade, virtually nothing has been done to restore the level of service. During this year’s summer months the congestion in the PSR grew to a level never before witnessed and in a bid to find solutions to the problems of the PSR the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations (CIGO) called a public meeting which was held in August in the Free Mason’s Hall, Molesworth Street, Dublin. It was attended by over one hundred individuals, many of whom were focused and articulate and who voiced imaginative and pragmatic solutions to the problems they regularly encountered at the GRO. While the meeting recognised that the GRO was currently trying to run the PSR under adverse conditions, the general feeling of those present at the meeting was one of being no longer willing to tolerate the PSR’s deplorable service. The meeting instructed CIGO to bring the following to the attention of the Minister for Health & Children.
During the last number of years regular PSR users have witnessed:
A reduction in the office’s opening hours.
Since August 1987 the PSR has been closed to the public at lunch time. The legislation in force states that a ‘General Search’ shall extend over six consecutive hours. This is clearly impossible under the present circumstances as the office is open to the public for five hours and fifteen minutes per day. Not only is the lunch time closure very inconvenient to existing PSR users, but the limited opening hours preclude other office workers from attending the GRO without taking time off work.
A vast increase in the numbers using the PSR.
In recent years Ireland has become an all-year-round destination for tourists and this, coupled with the immense growth of interest in genealogy by Irish people, is creating a level of demand that the current PSR facility is unable cope with. The programme to improve the PSR facilities, which has been promised for a number of years, finally began in June 1999. There was a desperate need to increase the PSR’s floor space, especially as during the summer it became so congested that many researchers, some from overseas, had to be turned away. However, while the PSR floor space has been extended by one third the refurbishment have never been completed. The chairs, tables, shelves and the depressing decoration of the PSR are all, without exception, dirty and dishevelled.
When comparing the GRO to our other national institutions which hold important genealogical resources, such as the National Archives and National Library, the PSR is the presentation of the grimy face of Irish genealogy. The state of the PSR is the one single issue that regularly astounds overseas visitors who are used to much higher standards in their own countrys’ public facilities. The atrocious state of the PSR is a national embarrassment and needs immediate attention.
There is only a single set of indexes in the PSR and the payment of the daily £12 general search fee is no guarantee that one will be able to search these indexes. The average number of researchers using the PSR at any given time is in excess of 30 and one set of indexes is inadequate among such a number. Such pressure on limited resources has also had a negative effect on the indexes, many of which now have broken spines and severely damaged pages. Some of the cover-boards that have split show that they are made of nothing more than compressed Kellogg’s cornflakes boxes. The computer generated index volumes for the period 1903 to 1927 are an utter disgrace, most have a number of pages missing and despite numerous protests, some still have dangerous sharp metal corners. All the indexes are bound in a manner unsuitable to the vigorous use they receive.
An attempt to increase the daily search fees.
PSR users were outraged when it was mooted in 1997 that GRO search fees were to be increased. The Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, the Dun Laoghaire Genealogical Society, the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland, various overseas interest groups and numerous private individuals lobbied the then Minister for Health. The increase was decried as indefensible given the state of the service provided. The general feeling amongst users was that increased GRO fees for an ever decreasing quality of service would not be tolerated.
The introduction of restrictions on the daily number of photocopies issued.
Since July/August 1999 the GRO has introduced a new rule that reduces to eight the number of photocopies a researcher may obtain per day. This rule runs contrary to the Statutory Instrument which sets the GRO search fees. The measure was met with astonishment by the users of the PSR some of whom have since complained to the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman has since declared that the linking of photocopy production to the number of daily search fees paid by an individual is clearly contrary to the Statutory Instrument currently in force.
A reduction in PSR staffing levels.
The consequences of the above have led to a large number of dissatisfied users, and a very fractious working environment in the PSR. The office staff are put under ever increasing pressure to produce a professional service without sufficient resources or support from their own Department. The daily users are dissatisfied with the ever diminishing level of service at the GRO provided by the Department of Health & Children.
The more than one hundred people who attended the CIGO public meeting were not there simply to air their grievances, but to contribute to CIGO’s quest to find helpful solutions to the points raised above. It is hoped that the following suggestions will be accepted as a genuine attempt by the PSR users to assist the GRO in re-establishing a quality level of service in Joyce House.
1 PUBLIC SEARCH ROOM
The refurbishment programme should be completed without delay. The PSR layout should be reversed. It would make sense if the counter and indexes were moved to the opposite end of the room, rather than having the staff members walk the length of the room each time they serve a customer. A hatch at the counter with ‘in’ and ‘out’ trays for photocopy orders should be provided, which would end the need for personal delivery of copies by staff. There should always be one member of staff at the counter to assist the public and collect search and photocopy fees.
CIGO is of course well aware of the GRO’s ongoing work in Roscommon town and the eventual computerisation of the civil registration records. However, the completion of this project is still a good number of years away and in the meantime at least one more set of indexes should be made available in the PSR. Researchers cannot be expected to pay a daily search fee, but be unable to fully use their time for want of an index volume. The index volumes should be re-bound in a similar fashion to those in the GRO for Northern Ireland.
The current practice of unnecessarily limiting users to eight photocopies per day should be abandoned. This rule, which was to be temporary, is implemented daily, although when announced it was supposed to apply only at busy times.
4 USERS GUIDE
Most public institutions now have a “Users’ Guide”. The GRO should be no exception, especially as a well written and concise guide has been needed for a great number of years. It may not be apparent to GRO staff that nearly all surviving nineteenth century records inter-relate and users of the PSR need to be aware of this important fact. The Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland has offered to write or assist in writing a guide.
5 OPENING HOURS
The issue of the GRO’s opening hours is one that was raised by almost all of those who attended the public meeting. Ideally, the office should be open from 9am to at least 5pm each weekday, with provision for Saturday opening. However, initially the GRO needs to address the inconvenience caused by the lunch time closure. As the GRO operates on flexitime a pragmatic approach should allow the lunch time closure to be abandoned.
6 REPRESENTATIVE USERS’ COMMITTEE
CIGO requests the urgent establishment of a users’ representative committee to meet regularly with senior GRO staff. This representative committee should include amateur & professional genealogists and legal researchers. The GRO cannot be expected to know the feelings of the users of the PSR unless it is regularly informed. Likewise, the PSR users need to know that their needs are being taken seriously. During the summer a meeting was called by the PSR supervisor at which the various problems faced by PSR users were aired. This forum proved to be productive and out of it came the successful introduction of the ‘counter tray’ into which those requiring photocopies place their order. This system ensures that all orders are dealt with in strict rotation. This example of PSR users interfacing with GRO staff more than adequately suggests that a users’ representative committee would be a success.
7 THE NATIONAL LIBRARY
Finally, at the CIGO hosted public meeting a unanimous resolution was passed to request the Minister for Health & Children to deposit microfilm copies of the important national archive that are the civil registers of birth, death and marriage, with the accompanying indexes, at National Library of Ireland. During 2000 the National Library will open its new ‘genealogy wing’ in which will be housed microfilm copies of many of Ireland’s genealogical records. Presenting a copy of the registers up to at least 1900 would not only reward the National Library’s initiative, but would have far reaching effects upon relieving the congestion in the GRO’s Public Search Room.