Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Who pays for free

What this title means is who pays for all the free stuff out there in the world. Isn't the world a closed ecological system and there is no free lunch? Why do genealogists expect free software and free access to records? Aren't user fees supposed to make the people who need the service or product pay rather than having us all pay so they can have a free ride? Isn't free about the most overworked word in the English language? By the way, I always cringe when I hear the word free used in conjunction with anything. If I have to take the time to look or listen, it isn't free to me.

What is generally meant by the word "free" is that you are not made aware of the true cost. When a store says "buy one and get one free" what they are really saying is buy two at a reduced price. I get a "free" newspaper on my driveway several times a week. But somebody paid for the paper, the printing and the staff to write and put the paper together. It is far from free, what is free is that I get all their advertisements without asking for them or needing them.

The reference to no free lunch simply means that someone, somewhere, has to pay for everything, even the things you don't think you are paying for. (I am fully aware of all of the ecological implications of the term "free lunch" but I am talking genealogy not ecology). I recently got a an offer for a "free" (no charge) reduction in a mortgage interest rate. After filling out the paper work, I found out that there was an $1,800+ service and transfer charge. The only part that was free was the fact that the bank was not charging extra interest (points) on the new loan. All of the other charges still applied. It would have taken me nearly two years to make up the difference in what I was presently paying and what would be financed under the new "lower" interest rate.

Genealogy and genealogists have the same dilemma. I find the most common problem to be people who think they can just walk into a Family History Center and look at their genealogy or expect me to do all the work in finding their relatives. The second group are those genealogists who think all software programs should be free and have a heart attack when I explain that some software actually costs money and that they may have to pay for upgrades. It is sort-of like buying a car and expecting to get free gas for life. Even if you got a program free (no out-of-pocket money paid by you), you still have to pay for your Internet connection, your electricity, your home, food, clothes etc. It costs you just to live and when you factor in all those costs, your free program may cost quite a bit of money.

Genealogists and others also have a tendency to discount the value of time. If I spend two seconds looking at an ad for something I am not interested in, that is two seconds I could have spent in some other way. Far from being free, anything that involves a time commitment is very expensive.

So why do I do genealogy if I have to pay for everything? It is all in the consideration of the value you place on the activity as opposed to something else you could be doing. Free isn't really a consideration. Take online records for example. Some people get absolutely livid about the fact that they have to pay some online provider to get access to "free" records. Sure, you could get in your car and drive for hours or days to a remote location, spend the time trying to gain access to the records and then spend the time to copy them or you could pay a subscription cost and have someone else do all the work. You are not paying for the records, you are paying for the convenience of accessing the records online from your home computer.

The same thing happens with any genealogical software program, I balance the cost to the use I will get out of the program. Sometimes, I am willing to purchase a program on the basis that I will use it for a while, sometimes not very long, until I find out whether or not the program is truly useful. The nice think about computers and genealogy, is that I can leverage my time and accomplish much, much more than I used to before computers.

The next time some one offers you something free, ask how much it costs, but ask yourself, not the person making the offer.


  1. That is because we Americans have the notion that we "deserve" everything.

  2. Nice article James! I personally tend to find that LDS people are the worse offenders on wanting genealogy services and program for free. FamilySearch is free, PAF was later free and still is... What should be realized is that other LDS members tithing paid for all this. So, it's not really free.