Saturday, September 18, 2010

British Columbia Historical Vital Statistics - Frustrations and Praiseworthy Enterprises

I spent today at the British Columbia Genealogical Society's seminar featuring John D. Reid of Anglo-Celtic Connections. Although the weather was drab early this morning, John kept us thinking (and smiling too) the whole day through - long past the time the sun came out. (Thank goodness! We wouldn't want him only to remember our liquid sunshine here in Greater Vancouver.)

Of course, all day we thought about genealogy, then some of us went out for a bite. On the way there - what did we talk about? Genealogy! (There was even a BMD joke that got us going, but I think you really would have had to be there.) Then at dinner - more genealogy!

It was that way all summer for me really, although it wasn't all as positive as today. First, there was the still thorny issue of the continuation of the Canadian 'long form' compulsory census. No, I won't get into that again - suffice it to say that as I predicted, many from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests continue to champion the census's survival.

There was the BC Historical Digitization Update session in June, which I've written a bit about before. I have very real worries that the needs of users, particularly non-academic researchers, and of the smaller historical and genealogical organizations who have collections that might be digitized are not being addressed in this area.

And even before that many of us were concerned about researchers' future access to British Columbia's historical Vital Statistics registrations of births, marriages and deaths (BMD). This is a fundamental source for genealogical and historical researchers in the province, and I was initially very apprehensive about what changes might be made. We have a very good system now. If you live near a larger public library in British Columbia, or the British Columbia Archives, or if you take advantage of the very helpful services of volunteers at Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness or one of the groups, like the BC Genealogical Society, you can get copies of released historical registrations very cheaply, sometimes just for the price of a photocopy.

Right now, we have public access to BC births over 120 years ago, marriages over 75 years old, and deaths over 20 years. There was some discussion at Vital Statistics, however, that public access to marriage registrations might be further restricted. I was assured by Vital Statistics in August that this is not being changed.

Previously each year, a new year's worth of birth, marriage and death registrations become available on microfilm, for example, this year, we were waiting for the 1989 deaths. Around the same time as the microfilms are available, usually the BC Vital Events index on the British Columbia Archives website is updated with the newly released registration details. The Vital Events index project was originally co-ordinated by the Genealogical Society of Utah, with the co-operation of British Columbia's Vital Statistics Agency and with the assistance of many volunteers from the Victoria area. In later years, staff at BC Vital Statistics have been indexing the registrations and that information has continued to be made available. Although there was a long delay this year, the index information was released in early August, and I have been assured that that process will continue.

What is being changed though is the mode of access to future releases of birth, death and marriage registration copies. Microfilms are apparently too expensive, and future releases to the BC Archives and to libraries will be digital, on CD. (There will still be preservation microfilm copies made.) Although I have hopes that this new mode may allow for increased access in libraries throughout British Columbia, apparently there will be more delay till the digital copies will be available. Many of us are certainly very anxious to see these, and anxious to see that these new procedures are set up as quickly as possible now. As yet, I haven't heard that libraries have been advised of how long this will take. Currently, to our dismay, to see a copy of a 1989 death registration, we must order this from BC Vital Statistics and pay $50 - the highest price in Canada for this type of information. (For more about Canadian Vital Statistics information, including basic prices and access conditions, see this draft Canadian Vital Statistics chart at the BC Genealogical Society website. )

I do want to make it clear that I commend the British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency and its staff for continuing to provide the free public index information for BC Vital Events and for the Agency's continued support for this project. I believe it is very important that this continues, even if other indexes are available now or later. There are few days in the week when I don't use this excellent resource - the BC Vital Events Index.

FamilySearch volunteers have now re-indexed BC birth, marriage and death registration copies and those indexes are available free on-line at theRecord Search pilot and beta FamilySearch sites. has what is apparently a copy of the BC Vital Events index available on its website for some registration years. But as we have seen before, databases on a commercial or institutional website may disappear, or become available later only for a price. I believe this information should remain available free on-line (and off) in British Columbia through a government agency like the BC Archives or BC Vital Statistics.

Indexes are not enough for historical researchers, of course, but they do give us an entry point to the whole collection of provincial birth, marriage and death registrations. Newspaper BMD collections and indexes inevitably favour some communities and geographic areas more than others, but provincial registration should include (almost) everyone.

And, whether we are looking into the birth, marriage or death of a family member, or whether we're researching a historical event or a health issue, like the impact of disease in a community, we need to see original documents for all the information contained in them and for all the details shown - wedding witnesses' names and addresses, a grandmother's signature perhaps, or a note that the parents refused permission for an autopsy on their dead son, for instance. And, of course, nowadays, there's little question that we would like these copies of registrations to be both on-line and free.

As I have said before in discussions about Library and Archives Canada, although I am not necessarily against agreements with non-government bodies, even foreign ones, I believe strongly that any arrangements or agreements regarding historical resources made with institutions, commercial companies or even volunteer organizations and the like, must involve community wide consultation beforehand, the terms and conditions must be open and be transparent, and these arrangements or agreements must benefit Canadians, or in this case, British Columbians. For example, if one group is allowed to digitize British Columbia BMD registration copies (as FamilySearch has apparently already done, in its indexing project), then surely as part of any agreement, these copies should then be freely available to British Columbian specialized or general historical projects (like the commendable Vancouver Island VIHistory website, perhaps).

Although these are my personal opinions, I know that they are echoed by genealogists and family historians, and by academic and local historians and other researchers in British Columbia. I know that many are discussing this issue right now and many feel frustrated.

At the last BC Genealogical Society meeting, we started a Vital Statistics 'wish list', but right now we have mostly questions.

Still - we'd like to make it very clear to Canadian Vital Statistic officials how important access to these documents is to historical and other researchers.

We'd like to see the BC index extended (as in England and Wales) to include almost current years, and, to see the price of a 'restricted' registration copy decrease. Very seldom would I pay $50 for a registration, unless I felt it absolutely necessary, but if the price were $20, I am sure more would be ordered.

And, the digitization and indexing of British Columbia newspapers, especially for obituaries and the like, needs to be standardized and expanded to include many more years and geographic areas, and more non-English and labour or political newspapers.

(So here's a last bit of very good news - the Coquitlam Public Library now has a Coquitlam obituary index 1911-1949. My personal thanks to the Library for this. It will be well used. I'm signing off now to look up a few more people. Research, after all, always smooths my ruffled feathers.)

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