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

Saturday, October 4, 2014

How online genealogical database programs operate - Part Two

The reactions of different genealogists to the large online genealogical database programs varies from enthusiastic use to vicious attacks. One of the main issues revolves around the mistaken concept that somehow all genealogy records should be "free." It is very difficult to understand where this concept came from since governments and other record repositories have been controlling the use and charging for some records since time immemorial. Many of the very large traditional libraries have "closed stacks" requiring anyone who wants to obtain material to be registered and request specific items. For example, as an attorney, if we wanted copies of Federal District Court records, we had to be registered with the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). This was a fee-based system. Here is a copy of a sample invoice:

Under a complicated system, the attorneys (and therefore their clients) can view some of the documents in a case for free but are charged for additional views or services. Just so you understand, these are fees charged to see the files from the attorney's own cases.

There is a also a long list of fees charged by the United States Copyright Office. Of course these fees are primarily for copyright registrations but there is also a charge for a search of a the records. Here is copy of the charges from the U.S. Copyright Office for searching for and retrieving a record: a single record:
Retrievals and Copies of Records
Retrieval of paper records (per hour, 1 hour minimum)$200
Retrieval of digital records (per hour, half hour minimum, quarter hour increments)$200
Additional certificate of registration$40
Certification of records, including search reports (per hour)$200
Surcharge for expedited retrievals, certification, and copying ($/hr)$305
Photocopy (black & white, 8 1/2 x 11) (per page, minimum: $12)$.50
Photocopy (black & white, 11 x 17) (per page, minimum: $12)$1
Photocopy (color, 8 1/2 x 11) (per page, minimum: $12)$2
Photocopy (color, 11 x 17) (per page, minimum: $12)$4
Audiocassette (first 30 minutes)
   Additional 15-minute increments
Videocassette (first 30 minutes)
   Additional 15-minute increments
CD or DVD$30
Flash drive$30
Unsupported formats and other copying of materials by outside providers, at cost of providerVariable
I guess I would say that genealogists shouldn't feel like they are being singled out for charges. Again, I cannot imagine where this idea that "records should be free" comes from. All through my nearly forty years of law practice, I paid thousands of fees for my clients. It was very rare when there wasn't a fee involved. During that nearly forty year time period, the filing fee for a lawsuit went from about $12 to $319. You might begin to see why I would view the charges for a subscription to or or any other online database as a bargain rather than a burden. You might also see why visiting a Family History Center is such a good deal with all the free websites. 

Now what is the value that the genealogist receives for paying an online subscription fee? That is a highly personal issue. I would suggest that if you don't feel that you are getting value for your money, then don't subscribe, but then don't sit out there making negative comments about the cost. You are always free to drive across the country and try and find all those records yourself, but don't be surprised if the libraries and archives have their own charges. 


  1. Taking one aspect a little further. Pay for the subscription and not find the records. Pay for the trip and not find the record

    1. Right you are! It actually happens all the time.