Thursday, July 12, 2012

TANSTAAFL - 2012 Update

In Thomas MacEntee's Genea-Opportunities series this week on Geneabloggers, he posted Genealogy - Whjat Do You Mean It isn't Free? A 2012 Update.  I'm providing my own comments a day after...

I wrote something on this topic back in 2007 - see TANSTAAFL.  Here is my update of that post:

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL). We've all heard that throughout our lives - as children, as students, as adults, as workers, as players, as genealogists. It takes money for the world to go around. If you're getting something for free, then someone else is paying for it.

DearMYRTLE and Jasia posted back in 2007 about the "hidden" costs of all of the free genealogy data we have available to us - the web sites, genealogy societies, databases, search engines etc. Someone pays - the web site owner, the advertisers, or you and me. I want to address the "you and me" part of it.

Every so often, someone posts a rant on one of my mailing lists decrying the cost of joining a genealogy society, the cost of an Ancestry (or other commercial site) subscription, or the use of user-contributed databases by a commercial web site. Once in awhile, a person in my genealogy society meetings goes off on the subscription genealogy websites, especially  I understand that many people are on limited incomes, and have to make priorities in their spending - genealogy may not be a necessary cost when a person is financially squeezed. But sometimes the rant is based on the notion that "someone wants to rip me off," or "they only want to make a big profit."

To my mind, a commercial genealogy company like (which has Rootsweb, Ancestry, MyFamily,, FamilyTreeMaker, Fold3, and other sites under its umbrella) is in a competitive business of providing information to customers (you and me). They offer an annual US Deluxe subscription (all of the US-based collections) for $155.40 a year, and an annual World Deluxe subscription for $299.40 (all collections). When you consider this on a daily basis, it is $0.43 a day for the US and $0.82 for the World. That is a pretty good deal IF you will use it on a regular basis.

Consider also that access to many of Ancestry's databases is available at libraries in the US in the form of Ancestry Library Edition. And that they provide access to Rootsweb (databases, mailing lists, message boards, freepages, society web pages, etc) for free. 

I don't know about you, but my Ancestry subscription is probably the wisest and smartest genealogy investment I've made in the last ten years. I use it almost every day. I can use it any time of day, at home on my desktop, at others homes or on vacation on my laptop or another computer, or on my smart phone and tablet device.

The biggest value, though, is the time (and money) it saves me - I can search databases and documents that I would otherwise have to travel a distance to find (incurring transportation and lodging costs), or find and copy at a local repository (copy costs, film rentals), or hire a professional genealogist to find (lookups or copies from a distant repository). I can download images from it and save them digitally - I don't have to abstract or transcribe it by hand to obtain a copy.

Some people have bemoaned the fact that there are so many commercial genealogy web sites now available and that they cost money. The fact is that these web sites (I'm thinking MyHeritage/WorldVitalRecords, GenealogyBank, AmericanAncestors, and FindMyPast here) are providing access to unique documents and databases that are not available at the Ancestry or LDS web sites - they are providing a service to their subscribers.

My view is that competition is GREAT for genealogy - when there are several content providers, they will fight for customers and continue to increase their product and their holdings. The worst thing that would happen to genealogy would be if one commercial company swallowed all of the others.

I, as a subscriber, have to make the choice whether to subscribe or not, based on the database offerings and my perceived need for them. Even so, the costs are not exorbitant to my way of thinking when considered as a daily or weekly cost. I could subscribe to all of those databases mentioned above for about $1.50 per day. I imagine that I spend $1.50 a day on things I "want" but don't "need." Heck, my cable modem connection costs me about $1.50 a day, and I use it for about 6 to 8 hours daily - I definitely "need" it!.  My smart phone is $2 a day for phone, message and web access.

I am especially grateful for the work done by the LDS church in providing - totally free - a large research library in Salt Lake City, 4,500 Family History Centers all over the world, access to millions of data microforms, and the web site with over 1,200 historical record collections (and more on the way), the research wiki, the research courses, and much more.  This organization will continue to add new databases and documents over the next many years, and is collaborating with several of the subscription sites to make their databases available at LDS facilities - for free.

What makes the most sense to me is for each researcher to evaluate their available income for genealogy-related activities, and budget accordingly. If you are not going to use a genealogy subscription service more often than once a month, it makes no sense to subscribe - you can go to a library or an FHC and find almost every thing that is available. If you are doing research every day, a personal subscription makes a lot of sense.

TANSTAAFL is a true statement - but in my humble opinion, genealogy resources on the Internet are almost FREE, and I am happy and grateful that commercial genealogy companies exist to provide data and information to their customers. I hope that they keep up the good work - and the competition - because all genealogists and family historians will benefit.

Note: I am not a member of the LDS church, or an employee or affiliate of any of the web sites mentioned. I do have a US Ancestry subscription that I pay for. I'm just a genealogy guy who is having a lot of fun searching for my own ancestors and helping other people in their searches.

The URL for this post is:

Copyright (c) 2012, Randall J. Seaver


Elf Flame said...

For me, I have one general issue with Pay sites, and that is how little you are guaranteed. I get that nothing is a free ride, but I hate giving someone money (that I have so little of as it is) without knowing I'll get anything back. And given most genealogy sites seem to focus almost exclusively on the US market (I know not all do, but even when they don't, the portion that isn't is often a quarter of their info or less), I know I will get very little value in return, because my ancestors were almost exclusively not from the US. Neither of my parents were born here, only one of my grandparents and one of my great-grandparents were born here, and only one person from the generations before that was here that I am aware of. That is a miniscule part of my heritage, and one I have quite a bit of information on already from the free sites I do have access to.

My big problem in particular, though, is with Ancestry. It isn't that they charge, because I do understand why. Every site needs money to keep alive. My big problem is that they take over free databases and lock them down (not often, but it has happened), and they insist on a credit card for even a temporary free account. I'm not willing to put in a credit card number so that they can "accidentally" charge me for time I shouldn't have had access. Not to mention how consistently they seem to be buying up other sites so that they can be the only game in town. It doesn't make me inclined to feel friendly toward them at all.

Sorry about the rant, just my two cents.

Unknown said...

I don't object to paying; I just wish that I could tell ahead of time what it is that I am paying for.

Many of the sites want you to pay BEFORE you can tell if you will get any value from them. (When I go to a store, I expect to buy, but I get to inspect the merchandise first. This inspection is also available in virtual form at sites like But pre-inspection does not exist at most of the genealogy sites.

Michael Hait said...

I think part of the issue with the two previous commenters is that they appear to be unclear as to what they are paying for. (and similar sites) does not charge for records about one's family. charges for access to the records in their collections.

You cannot compare this to purchase of merchandise. A better comparison for a company that provides access to content would be a movie theater. A movie theater does not charge you only if you like the movie--they charge you to walk in the door, sit down, and watch it.

Sonja Hunter said...

Many sites offer a one-time free trial so that you can try out a site before committing any money. Yes, they might require a credit card just in case you don't cancel before the trial is up. Just make sure you cancel before then. I also check the card catalog to see exactly which databases they have and importantly the years they cover beforehand. I try to watch my expenditures so I compile a list of what records/people I need to look for. I keep this updated so that I can subscribe to for a month (about once a year) and work every spare moment to find things on my list. When not subscribed, I still make use of Ancestry's search feature for census records. I then look up the record on FamilySearch or HeritageQuest (home access through the library). If I can't wait I head to the library. Depending on how much time you have for genealogy there are options.

Lexie at CraftyFamilyTree said...

The internet age has really disconnected people from the labor needed to create information products. No one would expect a box of cereal for free, because you can imagine the labor required to produce the tangible product you get. But with information or ideas, you don't get something you can hold, you can't imagine a factory producing it, and it is easy to pretend the information or idea was just sitting around and didn't take any work to create.

Add to that the "information wants to be free" fallacy that has developed around the internet, and we have a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of work, while a whole lot of other people assume no work was actually done.

I hope that will change somehow!

becky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
becky said...

I've been an Ancestry subscriber for many years and I consider it money well spent! My sons, whose inheritance I'm happily spending, all said "Go for it, Mom, if it makes you happy!" It does! It saves me a lot of time and money in the long run through the access to distant archives that it provides/

Gerry Sell said...

I expect to pay for services rendered. The problem arises when: (1) The service is NOT rendered and it is impossible to reach support (Today's example is from Ancestry. Although logged in, I am not able to access images of the 1880 Census not already in my tree. Why? It remains a mystery) (2) Public documents, created with taxpayer dollars, containing PUBLIC information, end up behind pay walls for private profit. This is akin to selling a national park to a private club. It is not improper, in my view, to pay a reasonable user fee to use the park (or see the image). However, I should not have to join a private club in order to do so. Just my two cents - or, more accurately, my two hundred dollars worth.