Even your Webmaster has problems with his computer, and the first draft of this article is being written on the number 2 machine, which is six years old, dreadfully slow, and uses a dial-up Internet connection.
It is an awful reminder of how much we take for granted the increases in speed and efficiency which have occurred in the past few years. Web sites like the 1901 Census or Family Search, now part of everyday life, have really only been available for a short time.
We have now entered a period of consolidation of the provision of information on the Internet, and can compare the different methodologies of pay-per-view, and the advantages and problems of the way records have been transcribed and indexed. The increasing flexibility of computer systems, and the size of databases they can handle, is changing the balance between the value of scrolling through microform copies of original documents as against the use of a possibly imperfect index or transcription. There is scope for improving those indexes, however. The 1901 Census consistently uses the word Southampton to refer to the County of Hampshire, but this is contrary to modern usage. There is no reason why the search engine should not be sophisticated enough to retrieve "Southampton" when "Hampshire" has been used as a search term. It is the researcher’s responsibility to evaluate the information retrieved, and assess its relevance.
The other reason why the old debate is becoming less relevant is that it is now much easier to look at original images. You can already do this online with the 1901 Census, but it is also possible with earlier censuses, which are becoming available on CD at reasonable cost from a number of suppliers.
Stepping Stones (www.stepping-stones.co.uk) are concentrating on the 1841 census, but have yet to release the CDs for Gloucestershire and Somerset. Their CDs cost about £30, but you can save money by ordering in advance of publication.
Gordon Beavington, well-known for his rapid indexing of the 1851 census of much of the west country and midlands, can supply 1851 census images on CD. Details are at http://www.mycensuses.com/
Rod Neep's Archive CD Books (http://www.archivecdbooks.com/) began as a project to scan old books, especially directories and other family history items, so that rare items could be made more widely available. He is now expanding the range, and is scanning the 1861 census microfilms for England and Wales. The policy is to announce a price and invite orders; as more orders are received, the price is reduced, but everyone who orders pays the lower price.
S & N Genealogy ( http://www.genealogysupplies.com/ ) supply the original images of the 1891 Gloucestershire census for £49.95. Buy that and a copy of our index, and you can search the 1891 census easily and accurately.
These CDs are prepared from new microfilm prints, so they do not suffer from the scratches and blotches that are common on old films available in libraries, record offices and the Family Record Centre. However, they can still be very faint, especially the 1841 census, and sometimes so poor as to be illegible. They are best viewed using a fast computer, otherwise the time taken to refresh the screen image can be slow. You can easily print out the pages which interest you, although as you have the CD, it is also simple to check back. Perhaps the greatest advantage is that you can browse through pages at comfort and leisure in your own home, and you are less likely to make mistakes in transcription.
Copies of these CDs for the local area are being bought for our new Research Room, but many people will find it useful to have their own copies. Since they are commercial ventures, and the cost of scanning microfilm can be high, the low prices are dependent on a mass market.
Recent news from 1837online is that the early GRO indexes been now been rescanned to make them easier to use. In addition, the entire period from 1837 to 1983 has been re-indexed by the first three letters of the surname. This means you are less likely to look at, and pay for, pages which are not relevant. This valuable pay-per-view site can be found at http://www.1837online.com/. It can be helpful to take the site tour, as this explains what is in the index and how it is charged for.
The GRO has now begun a trial scheme for the online purchase of birth, marriage and death certificates using debit or credit cards. This is currently only available to UK residents because of its trial basis. The fee for online ordering is £7, compared with £8.50 by post. Delivery is said to be within four working days. The website worked fine for me, although I did have to disconnect my firewall software for the payment process to function. Details are at http://www.statistics.gov.uk/registration/ .
The combination of 1837online and the online ordering of certificates means that it is now more economic to work from home than make journeys to the Family Record Centre. However, you may miss the magic of handling those antique volumes, and the thrill of a trip to the big city. Each to her own.
Finally, if you are curious about the sort of people who currently live in your area, or indeed in any other part of the country, then the Office for National Statistics now provides data from the 2002 census online. Not names and addresses, of course, but information about the age, education, employment and health for each local authority ward. Go to http://www.neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk/ and simply type in your postcode. Your ward data is compared with that for the local authority as a whole, and with the whole of England and Wales.
My number1 computer is now back from the repair shop, fitted with a new hard disk. Fortunately, all of the data could be recovered from the old disk and transferred to the new one, and I am back in action following a little tweaking of Microsoft Outlook. It was a dreadful reminder of the need to take regular backups, especially of your most important information.