Public Record Office

Company: SopheonCustomer: Public Record OfficeSubmitted by: Roger Staton AssocsFamily History is big business. People love tracing their family trees, and more and more of them are doing it on the Internet – in fact, family history research is thought to be the third most popular web application. Now the Public Record Office (PRO) has embarked on a massive project, working with expert technology partners including Sopheon, to harness the power of the Internet and bring the historic census information it holds to more people across the world.A key resource for people all over the world who are searching for ancestors in the UK is the Public Record Office (PRO), which holds many collections of records including the historic census returns (1841 -1891).

At present, to consult the census returns, people have to go to the PRO’s Family Records Centre in Islington, or for information specific to an individual county to that County’s Record Office or Library.In addition, visitor numbers at the Family Records Centre continue to rise, resulting in pressure on facilities and services, and queues at peak times.

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Easing the pressure, extending the reach

The PRO’s vision for the future is that its services and records will be accessible in electronic (digitised) form, both on-site and around the world via the Internet.One of the first steps will be to digitise the 1901 Census returns, which are due to be open for public consultation in 2002. The information will be accessible by the public via the Internet, on-site at the Family Records Centre, and hopefully many local record offices and libraries, on the first working day of January 2002.The PRO’s aim is to have their services available more widely through the UK, and further.

This means reaching potential users beyond London and the south east of England, those who are disadvantaged through working hours or domestic commitments, and the house-bound. As well as being an important tool for family history researchers and local and social historians, the census is also an excellent source for schoolchildren and other educational users. By digitising the 1901 Census and making it available over the Internet the information can reach schools up and down the country.

A significant record of UK life, and a significant challenge

Containing details on about 32 million individuals, the 1901 Census was recorded by enumeration officers working in all parts of England and Wales, on ships in port and Royal Navy ships at sea.The information, which included registration district, ecclesiastical parish, name, address, place of birth, occupation and relationship to head of household, was hand-written on recording sheets by the enumeration officers. These sheets were then transcribed onto folios which were bound into books by recording area.

It soon became clear to those at the PRO that they had no simple mission ahead of them.With 32 million names on about 1.5 million pages, and some complex IT requirements, it was realised that digitising the 1901 Census and making it available via the Internet would be a huge task, one beyond the resources of the PRO. The only practical way to undertake a project of that size was to seek a commercial partnership under the Government’s Private Finance Initiative through employing experts in technology.

Sopheon – providing the technology at the heart of the project

The prime contractor for the Private Finance Initiative project, DERA (the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency), appointed Sopheon to design and build a highly scalable, high-performance search solution for the website through which users will be able to access the PRO’s 1901 Census records.This will involve providing and integrating a range of software components including an e-commerce system, website, database, application servers, data validation system and back office systems into a single, integrated scaleable software solution.

The system will be on Sun servers running Solaris with Oracle databases. Other partners in the project include Enterprise Supply Services, which is manually inputting data from the images of the records into a database for the index, and Amey-Comax who are scanning the microfilm folio images and providing the hardware and infrastructure.”We’re excited that Sopheon software and systems are at the heart of this fascinating project,” says Barry Mence, Sopheon’s Chairman. “Our solution will enable the digitisation of the data, and make it available via the web. When the site goes live, users will be able to quickly and easily search for any record from the 1901 Census by a multiple choice of fields.

And the e-commerce system will allow users to ‘pay-per-view’ for the data and images they call up in the way that suits them, making it accessible to all.”

What will it look like to the user?

The electronically accessible 1901 Census will consist of an easy-to-navigate index of people, searchable by at least surname, place, and age. This index will link directly to high-quality electronic images of the original hand-written pages of the census, which research showed people still want to see. They will be able to zoom in and out on these for greater detail, and even print them out.Users accessing the information on the web will be able to conduct a basic search and gain basic information for free, with detailed data and image views available at a small charge, which can be made via credit card, postal order, cheque or corporate account, processed through an e-commerce system.The funds raised by the pay-per-view system will provide a return on the investment, enabling earlier census to be digitised and made available online too.

And the future? Opening up the government

Although the 1901 Census will not be available until 2002, a small sample of the 1891 census, which is almost identical in format, will be made available on the Internet during 2001 as a pilot. This will give users an opportunity to help the PRO, DERA, Sopheon and the other partners to test various aspects of the service.When the PRO’s 1901 Census web site does go live, it is expected to become one of the busiest in the world. In time, the site will be enhanced with previous census and other genealogical material being added.In the future, the PRO’s vision is that their services and records will be available via the web. It is now government policy to make all the information it can available online, thus making it more accessible to more people, from wherever they may be – a key step towards an ‘open government’.

So the project to digitise the 1901 Census may well be the start of something really big.