Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Paying for Genealogy Sources

I am continually amazed by the entitlement attitude of some people in the larger genealogical community. I wrote a post not too long ago on this subject, but I continue to get comments from people who think that everything should be free. So I decided to analyze the issue from another perspective.

On a philosophical basis and looking at the world as a mostly closed system, nothing is free. Every bit of consumption from the tiny bacteria to giant sequoias comes with a "cost." If you thought that anything in our closed physical system was free, you would be denying the application of the Laws of Thermodynamics. Take the earth as an example, if the sun did not continually provide solar radiation, the planet would soon freeze and die. Life exists because we have a constant "income" from the sun. I realize that this is entirely simplistic but the point is that closed systems will die without the addition of some kind of power i.e. heat.

Apparently those who think all genealogical source records should be "free" also believe in perpetual motion machines, that is, systems that can function without the addition of heat or energy. Look at it this way, there are a finite number of genealogical records in the world. In other words, the number of records is a closed system. The number of records available at any one time is also finite. New records are created as more people are born, get married, die etc. But these new records constitute additions to the system (sort of like having the sun shine on the earth). The creation of these new records is not "free" in the sense that some genealogists would like them to be. Some one (usually church members or tax payers to the state) had to pay to have the records created and maintained.

If you think about for even a few seconds, you will realize that all of the world's records fall into this same category. Some one at some time had to "pay" to have the record created. It is therefore tautological that no records are free. Every genealogical source record that exists had some initial cost of creation. For example, a newspaper article had to be written, published and paid for. A letter took time to write and there was a cost for the paper, envelope and stamp. Everything, including all genealogical records of any kind come only with a base cost of creation.

Now, assuming this cost of creation, there is a subsequent cost of maintenance. Records do not maintain themselves. There is a basic overhead cost to maintaining any record whether paper or currently digital. The cost includes the value of the space where the record is stored, the time it takes to retrieve, copy, catalog, collate, or whatever each individual record.  The cost of maintaining one record can be significant. The cost of maintaining billions of records can be staggeringly monumental. Why should anyone do any of the for free? Where does the idea that all of this system of records should be free come from? Why would anyone believe that the entities who maintain these huge collections of records would not want to recoup some of the cost of doing so?

If I hear the word "free" used in the context of some kind of entitlement claim, I think I will scream. Then I will probably write another blog post.  


  1. Though I'm not encouraging more entitlement nonsense, I'm never opposed to another blog post from you. I - like most people - appreciate when things are shared, give and take, style. I think sometimes that is the kind of "free" genealogists think of. It is not free though - not for the giver or receiver. It has to be in some way mutually beneficial or it is not going to happen (at least not for long).

  2. People confuse the right to having free access to records with having a right to have access to records for free.

  3. I love when things are free. However, that can't always happen. One of the challenges I like are finding the best deal or alternative methods of getting the info I want. This actually helps sharpen my research skills!