Saturday, 23 June 2018

The only constant is change

I am trying to love the new Family History Research Service launched by the Queensland Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages on June 6. After all, I don't want to be labelled a grumpy old man who wants everything to stay just the way it "always" has been. So I am trying, but gee they make it difficult.

Let's begin by acknowledging that the new search facility has brought some wonderful new features. How could anyone complain about immediate access to the full date of an event without the need for fiddly split-half search techniques? And we all appreciate the opportunity to purchase images of the original source documents as an alternative to the register entry (for the same price) with the possible bonus of additional correspondence at no extra charge.

And how about the new global search facility? Well, let's examine that for a moment. I often use our 2xgreat grandfather Thomas Henry Suddaby as a test subject. His name is rare enough that it almost always produces a manageable set of results. Now when I used the "old" search engine, I was limited to a single given name but a search for the birth Suddaby, Thomas produced two records (that for my target and one for his son with similar but not identical given names). Similarly, I located two death records (father and son) and two marriages (one for the target and the other for his daughter marrying a man with the same given name as her father).

With the new improved tool, a simultaneous search across all three datasets for Thomas Suddaby returned 221907 hits. Editing the search term to Thomas Henry Suddaby (additional given names are an added feature of the new service) increased the number to 405391. Does anyone remember when we were advised to "widen your search by entering fewer fields, and less exact information"? Now it seems that the opposite is true.

Fortunately for those appalled by those numbers, in the last few days an enhancement has been made offering the option to "Show only exact matches on names". When that was applied to my search the number of hits dropped to a mere 404932.

Perhaps, the simultaneous search is an unfair comparison. When I limit the new search to one event type at a time (as in the "old" system), it returns 127803 births, 90504 marriages and 186625 deaths. At least, it is consistent.

Of course, the quantity of hits is not the only (or even the most important) criterion of a search procedure. How relevant are the results returned? In each case, at least the first dozen results for each event referred to known members of the family of T H Suddaby and that was true of 58% of the first 50 entries in the aggregated search. But 47 of them were not the records I was searching for!

The new service has achieved this (admittedly impressive) feat of identifying records with an incidental relationship to the actual search being conducted by the introduction of "fuzzy" search algorithms. If I were a novice researcher making my first search with a single isolated name, I might be very excited to be presented with details of more than 20 other related people spread across three generations. As a grizzled veteran looking for a specific piece of information, my response is frustration rather than joy.

Perhaps when I find the switch to turn off, or even to moderate, the "fuzziness" of the search then I will come to love the new service. Grumpy old men will have the tool with which we they are familiar and the beginners will have immediate access to a flood of names and dates to maintain their burgeoning interest.

The page called Searching our historical records—hints and tips will surely explain how to regain some sensible measure of control over the process. Sadly, it does not. On the other hand, it does offer fascinating insights into the use of wildcards and sorting your results. Which is rather depressing because these were important features of the old system that have been disabled (lost|stolen|destroyed depending upon your current level of frustration). Never mind, in a short time, the help page will be cripplededited to correspond to the limitations of the search tool. Then a whole generation of genealogists will grow up not knowing what a price has been paid for the "improvements" we now enjoy.

But I really do not want to be seen as the old codger who pines for "the good old days". A positive response to my predicament would be to see how much of the functionality of the old site I can reconstruct in other tools. Clearly the first step is to copy the results returned from the web page into a spreadsheet for local manipulation.

Did I happen to mention that the format in which results are displayed has also been enhanced within the new service? That old-fashioned tabular presentation has been jettisoned in favour of something that scales nicely on small screen devices. Of course, making the list nice to read on a phone does mean the items cannot be pasted easily into a spreadsheet ...

I am trying to love the new Family History Research Service. I am, really. I don't want to be a whinger. But gee they make it difficult.

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