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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more

Sorry about the use of the well-worn quote from the Wizard of Oz but I think that the rapid changes in the online genealogical community are starting to give a lot of us the feeling that we are no longer in Kansas. The two major developments in genealogy, the flood of digitized records and the monetization of those same records, are profoundly affecting our genealogical lives. I am not just talking about any one acquisition; although the most recent announcement of Ancestry.com's acquisition of FindAGrave.com certainly prompted this post.

Unfortunately, many of us attach some of our emotional baggage to the changes and react to rather than reflect on the changes, usually without any perspective as to the effect of the changes.

I doubt that any clear thinking researcher would lament the greater availability of genealogical source records. In my experience in asking classes full of genealogists how many use Ancestry.com, I find nearly universal use of the program. So why would the genealogical community react negatively towards yet another acquisition by Ancestry.com? I think there is a perception of "us vs. them." This attitude probably has its origin in our cultural background and the modern sense of "entitlement." Throughout the world, we have constantly been told that we are entitled, as a matter of our basic rights, to many things. Anytime we grow accustomed to having some privilege whether previously available or not, we claim that privilege as a right to which we are entitled. We have grown accustomed to having genealogical records freely available online so, by extension, we now feel it is our right to have those records. Now that I think about it, we were probably never in Kansas.

Where did this concept of entitlement come from? Let's look at FindAGrave.com for an example. This website is a genealogical phenomenon. If is a "free" website with extensive content created almost entirely by the efforts of countless volunteers around the world. As it has grown in size, its value to the genealogical community has grown proportionately. Why did all those volunteers combine to provide the content without renumeration? The answer is fairly complex, but as the website grew, those who needed information about their own ancestors could see that by adding records they would be increasing the probability that someone else would add the very records they needed. Did any of those volunteers think of how the website was being financed? Who was paying for the computer space? Who was doing the programming? Who maintained the site and upgraded the hardware as the site grew in an astonishing way? I doubt that these questions were even at the threshold of the consciousness of the vast majority of the volunteers. In fact, few of them probably considered who even owned or operated the website. It was just there and therefore could be useful. As the volunteers continued to work with the website, they acquired a sense of ownership. Their data made up the site. The natural consequence of ownership was entitlement. The volunteers came to believe that not only did they own the website's content, they were entitled to more free content even if they stopped contributing. Of course, I could go on and on about entitlement, but it is clear to me that the negative reactions to the increase in size of the commercial genealogical data providers is wrapped up in the entitlement issue.

Now, is the growth of the large database a bad thing or a good thing? From the standpoint of making huge numbers of records available to almost everybody, I think the large companies' efforts are not only good but commendable. I have pointed out before that the cost of researching even a small number of the now easily available records far outweighs the most expensive subscription fees. In short, the net benefit of availability and ease of use is much more valuable than the offsetting cost of subscription.




4 comments:

  1. I agree there are costs to upload, store and index all of these records. I feel fortune that I have been able to get a lot information free of charge. I appreciate it. I have paid for documents and subscriptions also. I am a caregiver for my mother and like many people on a tight budget so I do try to get the information free if I can. Not that I feel entitled to the info, I just can't risk my financial security by going over budget at this time.

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  2. Thank you for another thoughtful post. Each are appreciated. I like to compare the current purchase to the similar purchase of Rootsweb, a number of years ago. That worked out well. I expect this will, as well, and I commend the actions taken, and promises made... and kept! ;-)

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  3. I think it is less so that its free/not free but that a lot of us are worried that Ancestry owns everything in the genealogy world, and there's not that much there to compete with it. Find My Past is probably their nearest competitor, and even then, their databases and documents pale in size and number to Ancestry.

    Competition is a good thing in any industry, public or private. The fact that Ancestry has little means they can say what they want, do what they want, and we have less and less say in the manner.

    Ancestry's prior history of buying things to kill them off stands as precedent. Remember Genealogy.com? hardly anyone still uses it. Rootsweb? Again, hardly anyone. Ancestry used its clout to shut down the Heritage Quest census indexing too - remember that? Proquest said directly that due to its agreement with them, they would not continue indexing. Footnote? Its now only a footnote as fold3 used by only a fraction of people. Now, some of this can be argued that changes in the industry helped kill off some of them, but there's a lot to be said for how much of a hand Ancestry had in getting rid of their competition.

    Its good precedent to be worried about competition in an industry that is decidedly collapsing, not creating new innovations.

    (and btw, I did support Find-A-Grave - I bought memorials there, etc. and told many of my friends to do the same, and they did as well. And they were also well supported by the real estate industry before the economy crashed.)

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