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October 7, 2014

Genealogy Should Be Free - Say What???

An offhand remark in a Facebook Group I am in started me thinking. A woman posted a query asking about a fee-based lookup service offered online. She asked if anyone had used it and was it a) legitimate and b) worth the money. 

As it happens I have used this service and think it is well worth the money, so I posted my experiences with it (all positive - reasonable fee, quick turnaround time, access to records I cannot access personally)

Then came the comment from a woman who said she would never use that site or any site that charged money for genealogy because, in her words, "Genealogy should be free"

I didn't respond but I wondered if she realized how much time and money is put into gathering records to put online. Big companies are obviously a business entity and their objective is to make a profit, not to provide us genealogists with great grandpa's death certificate for free. Our plumber or electrician or dentist or grocery stores or clothing stores are not providing us with free services so I shake my head at the notion that a company or an individual should. 

If  "genealogy should be free" then by extension the basic necessities of life should also be free! That would mean that food, shelter, and clothing would all be free. Grocery stores should not be charging for food, farmers would spend their lives working for the joy of it... and on and on it would go. I wonder if those who believe that "genealogy should be free" can see how ridiculous a statement that is?

Some people do give their time and expertise for free some of the time. Doctors might travel to other countries to provide free medical care for a month or a year but when they go back home they charge for those same services. 

What is involved in a large company putting data online? The expense of acquiring the database - in time and possibly money. It can take months of negotiations to get a local archive or church to agree to having their records published. Then there is the time and money on hiring people to scan, transcribe and index the records. Add to that the personnel hired to set up and maintain the database, the programmers needed to run the website which the web developers created (these are all jobs that individuals are paid to do) 

What about an individual who has a lookup service such as the one first mentioned? In this specific case, this man creates indexes to previously unindexed records. That's a huge job! He has spent a great deal of time on this. Then he offers, at a very reasonable fee, to go to the Archives and retrieve a record if you find an ancestor in his indexes. Why on earth would anyone think he should do this for free? I say good for him for a) providing a way for those of us living far away to obtain those records and b)finding a creative way to make a bit of money from something he obviously loves doing

Not everyone is independently wealthy or financially stable enough to volunteer hundreds of hours to help other genealogists. Nor do some people want to do such charitable activities.

Genealogists familiar with my website Olive Tree Genealogy know that I have thousands of genealogy records online - for free. Yep, that's right - free. I spend my time and/or money gathering records to provide for other genealogists at no cost to them. How do I do this? I took ads to earn some money from my website. Why? Because it was a choice - continue working at my paid job outside the home and not have a website with these wonderful records OR give up my job, and devote my time to a website offering free genealogy records - and that meant taking ads as a way to help offset the income I lost by quitting my paying job. 

I also think the woman who made the original comment that she would never pay for genealogy, overlooked the fact that if she goes to a local library or archive, she is no doubt paying for some kind of transportation. Other expenses are often involved - money for lunches, for parking, for a babysitter, for photocopies..... rarely is anything actually "free". For me a huge factor too is the convenience of having records online and the ease of access which frees up my time to do other things.

The bottom line is that we live in a world where individuals are compensated for the work that they do. This is how our society functions. Why anyone would expect someone to work long hours providing the rest of us with a free service makes no sense. Sure it's wonderful if someone does volunteer their time and money to help others - and there are lots of volunteer organizations to be found for those who have the time and the inclination. But on a day to day basis, it is usually the case that we humans get up, go out to our jobs, then come home - and we expect a pay check at the end of it. And there's nothing wrong with wanting or needing to be paid for the work we do.


Diana Ritchie said...

That is one I've never understood either! I totally get that not everyone can afford every fee-based genealogy site, but to say they just should be free...blows my mind. There are days that Ancestry drives me crazy for various reasons, but I love going there to snag a quick census record. :-)

Anonymous said...

Maybe those same people think books, music and movies should all be free as well. I have heard way too many comments from people who feel this way, as well as the people who work "under the table" and don't report income or pay taxes.
Yes, there are great sites that I am happy to pay a fee to get a copy of a record, saving me hours on microfiche or a visit to an archive that is not near to me. The people doing this are helping to make those records accessible to more people, and yes, they should be compensated for their time and services.
I am more like the person asking the first question; is the person/site legitimate before I hand over my payment information.

Ginger Smith said...

Thanks for putting this out there and reminding people that genealogy isn't and shouldn't necessarily be free!

I do not think that people who have never driven two hours to a court house and spent 5 hours shuffling through the courthouse basement looking for an obscure marriage record, paid $5.00 to copy said record, and then took the time to scan it and share it on the social media platform of their choice, have an understanding for the time and energy it takes to locate such records.

I think if more people expanded their genealogical research beyond the internet, they might have a better appreciation for the records and the people and companies who provide access to them.

Bill Lavery said...

I see your points. However, these sites want me to share my 30 years of research for free. This definitely adds to their value. Most of their "product" is the work of other volunteers and free databases. I've never had to pay for census records and LDS doesn't charge.

My records will never be shared on a pay site. Period.

Anonymous said...

The technology to preserve, scan, and present the records is very expensive. You pay for the trained expertise of the person who is preserving the records and for the reliability of the website to be there three months or three years from now. I consider this hobby to be a lifelong pastime, not a literal survival need. Geez, we can't even get adequate funding for schools, who is going to pay for us to do free genealogy? Even the public library is paid for by taxes.

Dianne Nolin said...

My thoughts exactly! I put my dog in a kennel for a couple of weeks (assuming that's enough time), get on a plane and travel to England, Scotland and/or Ireland and go to the churches, cemeteries and archives and spend hours going through records. Hopefully have a not-too-shabby hotel room close to these places so I don't have to take taxies. Then it would be FREE! :-/

Murphy said...

Very great points by Lorine. Some sites are "free" for data but they may make money through ads or donations or other means. It's interesting, because it does cost quite a bit of time and money to gather data, host the data, research and etc. with the process of genealogy research. Some sites and volunteers are actually gracious enough to do quite a bit of work and provide the data/records for free because they are passionate about providing the information for others to utilize. Or maybe they feel obliged to give back to the community for getting other things for free as well. Very interesting discussion and great points made by all.

Anonymous said...

I agree! So much work goes into creating and preserving records, that it doesn't hurt to compensate folks for their time and efforts. I have no qualms about paying for what I want, as well as giving of my time as a volunteer for free services (such as in an effort to make genealogy more readily available.

bgwiehle said...

While I have paid for subscriptions and downloads on genealogy sites, I do use a lot of free sites to my advantage. In response, I give back to the wider genealogy community by indexing and contributing to sites like Find-a-Grave.
It's only fair that if you take something that is "free", you should still express your appreciation in some way.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

I am really enjoying reading everyone's comments and their specific thoughts on this free vs fee blog post.

As expected I disagree with Bill's comment "these sites want me to share my 30 years of research for free. This definitely adds to their value. Most of their "product" is the work of other volunteers and free databases."

I don't know where you get the idea that sites such as Ancestry or other big business sites offer the work of volunteers and free databases as their content! That is completely false.

Ancestry for e.g. pays to acquire the basic staples of genealogy such as census and BDM records. They also have amazing smaller records that are not the work of volunteers and are not free elsewhere.

Can you share with us the names and URLs of sites that do what you claim - use volunteer work and free data and then charge fees to view it?

Janet Hovorka said...

Lorrine. Thanks for this post. The bottom line is, you get what you pay for. I think genealogy is worth paying for because I want to have quality resources and tools to do it with. Like I say with our company, I have to charge for our services so that I can continue to do it for you. If I have to quit and go make my mortgage payment another way, I won't be here to help with your genealogy.

And, some may say the LDS church's contribution of everything FamilySearch does is for free. But if that is the case, don't tell all the LDS people who pay 10% of their income to tithing that helps support FamilySearch. That is one of the most expensive entities in genealogy. But only if you are LDS.

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

Couldn't agree more Lorine! The same person is probably one of those who asks others do do (free) lookups on the sites they pay for, and wouldn't dream of going to an archive or library under their own steam. They want the low-hanging fruit at their fingertips. Perhaps they should be "sentenced" to doing a bunch of indexes, then maybe they'd get it. Perhaps Bill was referring to putting his own tree online for others to use? I am also aware of at least one professional researcher who has put in laborious hours indexing - she gets paid by the online company when someone accesses those's how she puts food in her mouth.

Karen Bfesq said...

Could you share the name of the pay site or email it to me? I am curious and I pay for good services.

Saskey said...

Yes, and I think beer should be free, but... :-) More seriously, even some major sites that are "not free" can be accessed for free! Go to your local public library for Ancestry Library for free (and, maybe soon for MyHeritage) or to your local LDS FHC for free access to, FindMyPast, and others. Believe me, even if you pay, it is much cheaper than traveling to Scotland for a couple weeks to get the information (even if not as pleasant:-)


Shauna Hicks said...

Wonderful summary of an issue that never seems to go away - we are getting easier and quicker access to more and more records, who do they think makes this happen?

Shauna Hicks said...

Great summary of the debate - nothing is free and we should all be grateful for the easier and quicker access that we now have thanks to everyone contributing to make it happen.

Jill Ball said...

I love FREE but am willing to pay for the convenience and quality of record sets on pay sites.

Like Pauleen I get really annoyed at those people who have the cheek to ask those who are paying for acceess to online subscription sites to do free lookups for them.

I have spent years researching my family history and share it freely via my website because it is not only "my" family history it belongs to many others. I get a buzz from knowing that my work is helping others to discover their past.

The best things in life aren't always FREE.

Magnus Sälgö said...

People have to realise that we have a new landscape with internet. Have a look at wikitree its free and people spent a lot of time creating it.

I think wikitree is and will be a good resource that will be free and more will come. You have to change your mind some thing will be free but if you buy Encyclopaedia Britannica its not

Alona Tester said...

Lorine, I totally agree with you. And while there is an awful lot that is free, people shouldn't expect it ALL to be. Janet wrote "you get what you pay for", it's true. The bottom line is free isn't always a good thing. Just check Kerry Scott's post on the topic "I Hate Free Genealogy Stuff" (

Helen V Smith said...

The other interesting point is that these same people say "it should be free I pay taxes etc" then believe they should be able to access records from another area or country for free. And are the same people who say that professionals are evil money grabbers but I bet would be the first to complain if they were not paid for their work.

skooter said...

I agree with your comments in general but comparing essential goods and services to Genealogical services is a bit of a stretch, don't you think? The fees that some of these companies charge for their services are also a bit of a stretch. I personally don't subscribe to Genealogy sites unless they're a whale of a bargain or for a limited time.If you search long enough you'll find free sites, or bargainn deals which are very useful.

Tessa Keough said...

Such an interesting discussion. And I think you "hit the nail on the head" when you referenced the necessities of life argument. In the scheme of things (and I know this will be hard for family historians and genealogists) our passion, profession, interest (whatever it is to you) involves looking at records that were kept by private and governmental organizations for other purposes.

We are quite lucky that these groups maintain their records and make them available to us. We are even luckier that a group like LDS has taken this up as a mission (if I understand it correctly) to gather, maintain and make available the records it copies. But make no mistake - that costs money and someone is paying for it (I am guessing members of the LDS church). Just because the rest of us have not paid and the Family History Library makes its records available online and at various facilities does not make it FREE. That is why many genealogists and family historians (of all stripes, religions and no religion) volunteer to index - to "pay it forward." Some other groups do this as well - but that is their decision and not something that should be expected as some kind of right.

As to government and private organizations - they don't have to share this information with us. They have made the decision to help make records available, so let's not be greedy, demanding or obnoxious about what we think we are entitled to. Our taxes pay for a number of things but not providing records without appropriate search and copy charges.

And to those who don't want to share their research - I can't believe that anyone out there has done it all by themselves and never received any assistance and/or a few names and dates from another family member or researcher. Why are any of us doing our family history or any specialized study - shout out to one-name (surname) studies and one-place (location) studies? I certainly hope we are doing it like all researchers in most every field - to share our research with the community, to expand our collective knowledge, to shine the light on a forgotten family, surname or place, to put our lives in some context. If you simply want to research and pack it away in a closet - I am sorry for you because I think you have missed the entire point of what we do (of course you are "free" to do so).

As to free vs paid - I know we all love free and if you are volunteering as well - THANKS for helping out and paying it forward. But everyone's work has value and many have expertise that they are providing, others have records they maintain, index and place online or at offline facilities. Are those individuals and companies entitled to be compensated for what they do and the knowledge they have to share - YES, just like any other group (doctors, lawyers, plumbers, teachers, librarians, etc.). Why does anyone not think we should extend that same basic and well understood concept to the professional genealogist or a subscription service? Yet again I am reminded that we would all be better off with an "attitude of gratitude" and a respect for the contributions (both paid and unpaid) of others.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Skooter - I think you misunderstood my point. If genealogy sites, which are NOT essential to life or health, should be free - then it stands to reason that a NON luxury service should also be free.

And while it is true that many sites (like mine!) have content that is indeed free, researchers will not find every single set of records they want/need for free. That's absolutely not gonna happen.

As for the cost of services, that is what free enterprise is all about! Companies/businesses can charge whatever they wish. If consumers don't want to pay it, they do not have to buy it. But obviously many consumers will pay, or the companies would reduce prices.

I also doubt most folks realize exactly how expensive it is to find and create and maintain data on a site like Ancestry - I don't begrudge them making a profit, that is what our

enterprise system is all about.

irisheyes jennifer said...

Dear Olive,
Thank you so much for posting this. Recently I declined to do free research in Dublin for a former follower of my blog, who happens to be a (very) distant relation by marriage. I am still stinging from the vicious email I received in reply from him. The personal attacks and the language used in the message are so over the top that my husband has advised me simply to dismiss it, but the hurt caused is very real.

I will never understand those who believe the family history/genealogy work of others has no value, simply because it does not fit into a traditional framework of what they might describe as work.

irisheyes jennifer said...

Dear Lorine,

I'm so embarrassed that I addressed you as Olive in my comment. So sorry about that.

MJ Rose said...

I love reading peoples' comments on this post.

This woman has no concept of what someone else's time is worth or just the fact that archiving and maintaining and translating and transcribing genealogical information takes both time and money. I am truly appreciative of the site maintained by LDS but because I realize that providing something for "free" does cost money, I volunteer and help by indexing on their projects. I also am a find-a-graver because I consider it "paying" back for what others have done for me.

As much as I love my findagrave hobby, a part of me would like to charge people money for my time and effort searching cemeteries and uploading photos - because it's a lot of my time that I'm giving. I am surprised at how often things are free because behind the scenes I know how much effort if put into making it possible. Silly woman. I don't understand people like that at all.

Geolover said...

If taxpayers refused to support the governmental entities that created and maintained the innumerable records that are now so useful, the records would not exist. And would not reside in safe, accessible repositories, and would not have been microfilmed.

Beverly Henry said...

I personally think that if you're unable to go to a Government Office, Library or Archive and you want to get a copy of a record from a website such as this, then there should be a fee for that service. We all know what searching and sourcing records cost us in time and effort and if someone else is going to do the work for you, you should have to pay a fee.

However, if I'm sourcing a record held by a Government Institution in a County I live in, and they have it online, or in a "open" and public fond, it's my time and effort in finding it, so I don't think I should have to pay an additional fee. If I have one of their staff source the record, then yes I should pay a fee.

If I'm sourcing a record outside the county I live in, I think I should pay a fee to that Countries Government Agency.

I think this discussion is very important as Government Agencies, although supported by Tax Payer dollars, are having to operate on reduced budgets and they have to have some way of paying for the cost of keeping our Vital Records. I just don't agree if they sell the records to a Private Company and no longer "hold" the records themselves. I wouldn't want any private company to be the keeper of my vital records.

The biggest argument in regards to Vital Records I see in the future will be in regards to "Privacy" and the laws of the County governing them. Do I want Joe Smoe from Turkistan having access to my families Vital Records merely by paying a fee..heck no. There has to be some control as to who has access and how that access is granted.

TravelGenee said...

Well said! Paying for convenience and added value is totally OK. Being able to sit in your PJs and search about your ancestors in the wee hours of the morning - of course I would pay for this. Like I would be happy to pay for personalised professional help getting over a stubborn brick wall. It is just a case of weighing up the value and the cost. "Never say never", as you never know what might change.

Jo Henn said...

But they aren't only your ancestors (no one can see live people's records on Ancestry), the further back on your tree you go, the more people are descended from them. Joe Schmoe from Turkistan (very possibly on a U.S. Armed forces base) may very well be related and they are his ancestors too. You don't own your ancestors.