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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Speculations on the Future of Subscription Genealogy

A certain segments of the genealogical community act and speak as if they are mortally offended by the fact that certain large online corporations "sell" access to genealogical source data. In writing on this topic, I have pointed out that there are no "free" online sources, only ones where the cost of maintaining the database is passed on to other than the direct users. I have further addressed the issue of the need for commercial genealogy subscription companies and the propriety of paying for source information.  However, this issue of paid online genealogy services is only part of a larger issue concerning the future of the huge online genealogy databases.

It has happened that genealogists with subscriptions to a website have found the site sold out from under them with unresolved issues about availability and features. 

In the past, because of my interest in these large genealogy companies, I have also written several posts analyzing their ownership. I have done this so that the community at wide, has a better idea of who they are paying for their online services. For example, it might interest you to know that when you have an Ancestry.com subscription and then also subscribe to Fold3.com, that you are paying the same company. Not that it matters any more than if you purchase two different models made by a certain car manufacturer. But, if you were purchasing a certain brand of air conditioner, for example, you just might be interested to know that several other brands are made by the same company although they appear to be in competition.

One topic I have yet to address is the fact that many of the sources held by the larger commercial enterprises are duplicated between the collections. The U.S. Federal Census is a prime example. There are multiple copies of the entire U.S. Census online, some for free and others available only by subscription. In some of these cases, you are paying for convenience and not unique access to a certain type of record.

In the online world, there are definitely economies of scale. A large online database can host a million records or a billion records and the overhead of handling those addition electronic records does not increase proportionately. In addition, the companies can become more profitable because technological innovations continue to reduced data storage costs per unit, i.e. the cost of storing 1 MB of data. The reasons for this decrease is, in part, the increase in the capacity of storage devices, such as the currently available, 4 to 6 Terabyte hard drives. Larger capacity drives allows an almost unlimited expansion of the records held by the larger companies. For example, FamilySearch.org recently added a portion of the International Genealogical Index to their Historical Record Collections consisting of over 667 million records all at one time. In the past, such an addition would have been quite expensive, now, from the hardware standpoint, it is merely a process of adding a few more hard drives.

By no means are these huge online databases cheap to operate or maintain. There is a major expense in acquiring hardware, programming and support. But as I noted, the increase in size does not necessarily create a concomitant increase in costs. 

It is obvious to me that memory storage capacities will continue to increase and the cost per unit of storage will continue to decrease, thus enabling larger and larger databases. Today, a 6 Terabyte external hard drive costs just over $400. That price will come down and even larger drives will be available. The availability of cheap storage at those capacities forebodes the further expansion of the large online databases and the continued consolidation of the companies. So, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com and brightsolid.com, as well as FamilySearch.org, will continue to expand both by adding more records and either by strategic alliances or, in the case of the commercial operations, by purchasing existing online databases. 

Since there is a finite number of historically significant records, I would expect more and more duplication between databases. There is always the possibility that two or more of the major players either merge or one buys out the others.

There will also be a huge increase in the number of records about individuals and families who are living or who have lived since the introduction of computers and that are now being created. For example, no one has or will have any trouble at all in finding information about me or anyone else online.

The continued expansion of records online, will begin to depend more on funding and politics than on the size of the large online companies. As the big players chase even more elusive record sources, the cost of adding individual record collections will likely increase.

All of this is not particularly bad for the genealogical consumer. More and more records will become available on line and there will likely be fewer places to search for the bulk of the online records. What is a given, however, is that the need to search off line, paper records will not likely diminish in the near future.

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