Wednesday, April 20, 2011


In Genea-Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) on the Geneabloggers blog, Thomas MacEntee has created a series of posts for this week concerning genealogy and, horrors, money!   Is there money to be made in genealogy research, teaching/speaking and writing/editing?

Wednesday's question is:   "What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free? – how do we as a community deal with the perception that everything – and I mean everything – is free for the taking when it comes to genealogy? From commercial databases, to freely stealing content from a blog or website, to being incensed when a genealogist charges for a webinar or a syllabus."

  TANSTAAFGS???  It's not a weird surname from Lower Slobovia... it means "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Genealogy Service."  It's true - even in genealogy!!  My observations and opinions:

*  Every website costs money for hosting the servers (both the physical machine and all of the chips and boards necessary to store all of the zeros and ones that comprise digital data) and renting (for a fixed period) the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) - the website address like

*  Every online historical collection of digital images and indexes, and the file allocation tables required to find them, costs money to the provider - obtaining the image using a digital camera of some sort, the camera operator, transferring the data to the database creator, naming and indexing the file name, getting the data ready to index, the actual indexing by a volunteer or an employee, putting the index into a searchable form, linking it to the overall  database structure, supporting the database, maintaining and fixing the database, etc. etc.  All of that takes time, and money to pay for employee time and benefits, software and hardware.

*  Many "free" websites (e.g., do these types of activities as part of a religious or social commitment.  Thank goodness for them!  Some free sites were started by volunteers (e.g., Rootsweb, USGenWeb) and gained financial support from one or more companies or through voluntary contributions for support and maintenance (e.g., Rootsweb is supported by  Thank goodness for them!  We should thank them every day.

*  Some "free" websites, including many genealogy blogs, use advertisements and affiliate links to support some or all of their expenses.  More power to them - if it works for them, that's great.

*  The commercial genealogy websites (e.g., Ancestry, Footnote) require a subscription for long-term access to their record collections.  Are they worth it?  My answer is:  YES - if you use it regularly.  For instance, Ancestry's retail price for a yearly U.S. Deluxe subscription is $155 per year - that's 42 pennies per day!  It's $2.94 per week.  I waste that much money every week on non-essential things - it's less than a Starbucks latte, three lotto tickets, or two packages of Ding-Dongs (I love Ding-Dongs!).  I access Ancestry almost every day, and couldn't do what I do on my blog or my teaching/speaking without it.

*  Conferences and seminars usually require registration fees from attendees to pay for their space, support and lecturers - and that is pretty much accepted by the persons that attend them.  Similarly, genealogical societies usually have to pay speaker fees or honorariums in order to have the speakers provide content for the society's programs.  They pay for it either with membership fees or program fees.  Exhibitors at conferences pay to rent space and services, and sell their products.  People seem to have no problem with paying for their products and services.

*  While there are several free genealogy software programs available, the most popular, most complete and most complex programs are not free, but the cost is pretty reasonable.  For Windows machines, FTM 2011 is $40 retail, and RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree are $30 retail.  In addition, the latter two only require payment for an upgrade when a major upgrade occurs.  People seem to have no qualms about paying for software, probably because it is usually a tangible product e.g., (a CDROM).

*  Genealogy magazines are not free - people seem to have no qualms about paying for a print magazine about genealogy - it's a tangible product.  What about a digital magazine like Internet Genealogy?  Only a  

*  Some professional genealogists charge fees for their research services.  No person interested in their family research can expect to not pay for genealogy research performed by another person, other than out of the good heart of the researcher.  It's like paying your electrician or your plumber, isn't it.  They provide a service, and you pay based on the service performed, the "parts" required for the repair, and the time it takes to perform the service.

*  In all of these cases - you get what you pay for!  Pay for nothing, and the websites, databases, conferences, societies, software, magazines, research, services, etc. will eventually disappear. 

*  Most people inherently understand all of the above, and appreciate the information and services provided online, and on paper or in software, by all of the providers included in the list above.  Some websites, database providers and software providers provide free content - selected databases, educational videos, webinars or articles, etc. 

*  It is true that some searchers for genealogy data freely copy and paste information from a website and put it into their database, or copy pages from a book or periodical, and type it into a database.  I know that I have, and continue to do so.  However, I try to follow the copyright provisions as best I can, citing my sources and copying within fair-use guidelines.  It's difficult to do this because it is so easy to copy/paste or copy/type.  Note:  I used "searchers" intentionally - people who copy/paste are not "researchers" when in that mode!

*  Having suffered through the use of some of my genealogy data because I shared my genealogy database using a GEDCOM file many years ago, I don't do that any more.  I will provide a genealogy report in a PDF or RTF format to another researcher who is willing to share their information with me, but I usually provide only limited data (e.g., one family line, with notes and sources).  My online web pages with my research ( have only assertions with no notes and sources, and are now dated (last updated in 2005 - another project on the back burner here in the Genealogy Cave!).  Persons that find my site, and avail themselves of my information, are encouraged to contact me to share their information and to add to or revise my information, and many do, for which I am thankful!

For a good summary from a genealogical educator and speaker viewpoint, see Thomas MacEntee's post Genealogy – What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free? on the Geneabloggers blog today.

The answer to Thomas MacEntee's question is:  Everyone involved needs to educate their readers and customers as to what the true cost, and appropriate use, of the information, services and products provided.


Judy Webster said...

Well said. I now put this explanation on my Web site for potential clients:

Fees are based on costs incurred and time spent on handling the commission. This includes the time it takes to analyse information supplied, contact you for clarification if insufficient data is provided initially, plan the research, search the records, assess results, order and collect photocopies, prepare reports, and read and respond to emails. Out-of-pocket expenses are extra (photocopies, phonecalls, certificates, photographs, postage, packaging etc). My hourly rate covers non-billable expenses such as stationery, computer hardware and software, equipment repairs, Internet access, Webpage costs, electricity, ongoing education (genealogy seminars, conferences and journals), books/fiche/CD-ROMs for my home reference library, etc.

Janet Hovorka said...

Great summary Randy. You know, the true costs are that such things could go away if we don't support them. If we want to have better resources, we need to be willing to pay for them in spite of the fact that some genealogy resources are free. There are many genealogists out there who are willing to support the industry they love. Let's hope those that those who aren't will learn the value of such services before they have to learn the hard way what the true costs are when they aren't available anymore.