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Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Future of Free Genealogical Records

I can sum up the future in one sentence: there isn't much of a future. One of the obvious effects of having huge competing commercial online genealogy companies is that they are willing to pay repositories for access to their records. As a result, the repositories, mostly governments and their sub-agencies, realize that the data they have locked up in their files has an economic value. Hence, they either sell the information to the large companies or try to sell it themselves.

A recent dramatic example of this trend is reported by The Ancestry Insider in blog post entitled, "Cook County Images Disappear From FamilySearch.org." He reports as follows:

Due to the provisions and guidelines of a newly revised contract with Cook County,  FamilySearch has removed all images for Illinois, Cook County vital records from its historical records collections online; free indexes to the collections will remain.
As part of our new agreement, FamilySearch will receive an additional 4.7 million records for FamilySearch patrons from the over 9 million free indexed records in the Cook County collection. The following collections are affected by the change:
  • Illinois, Cook County Birth Certificates, 1878-1922
  • Illinois, Cook County Birth Registers, 1871-1915
  • Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1922
  • Illinois, Cook County Marriages, 1871-1920
The upshot of the deal is that Cook County now gets to charge researchers for copies of the same images that were previously free on FamilySearch.org. How long do you think it will take the politicians and government workers to figure this out with other collections of records? It is true that many jurisdictions have been charging for copies of birth certificates and death certificates for a long time. In fact, there is a mini-industry of commercial online websites that will sell you a copy of a birth or death certificate they purchase from the government at a mark-up to make a profit. The difference here is that collections of documents that were previously free are being commercialized. These are not documents of recently born or deceased individuals. These records go back to 1871, long before the idea of selling old records was viable.

Another example of this commercialization happened some time ago. The predecessor of FamilySearch, the Genealogical Society of Utah, microfilmed Swedish records for the government of Sweden. The original records are kept at the Swedish National Archives in Stockholm. The FamilySearch Family History Library has a microfilm copy of the original records and a copy went to the government of Sweden. Sweden then allowed a private company to digitize and then sell the copies of the records as Genline.se. The story does not end there. Ancestry.com purchased Genline.se. So the records which are free at the Family History Library are being sold online. Of course, since that time, Genline.se and Ancestry.com have added other records.

Despite this, there are millions of Swedish records online for free from FamilySearch.org. But whether or not FamilySearch would be able to continue to make the copies of the Swedish records available in digitized versions would depend on the agreement made with the Swedish government long before online availability was an issue. It will become more and more common for these early "agreements or contracts" to be renegotiated in light of the monetization of genealogy records. All of this will be subject to the negotiations going on every day and records may continue to disappear from FamilySearch's online collections.

The unknown factor in all of this is the effect of the commercial websites buying up the options to index or display records.

1 comment:

  1. I have always lived Family Search for making the records available at no cost. They put a tremendous amount of work into it. I do understand the other agencies need money, but can't they find other ways.

    Betty

    ReplyDelete