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

Friday, September 6, 2013

More Thoughts on the Monetization of Genealogy Records

The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California. As a side note, once, at the Gem and Mineral Show in Tucson, Arizona, I saw the sample of the original gold that was discovered. The end product of this gold rush can still be seen today with high real estate values in California. We are watching another, much smaller gold rush today. But we aren't seeing gold, what we are seeing is monetized online genealogy records. 

The reality of today's world is that information has a value. It has become a product that can be bought and sold. Large online genealogy databases have discovered that there is a cost to putting records online and that once online, they can be sold through subscription websites. This is simple economics, if you put up a billion or so digitized or indexed records online, people are willing to pay to see them. So why would you give away free what costs you to put online? Once the record repositories understood that their records had a monetary value, could they continue to give them away for free? Once realized that the records accumulated since 1938 had a real monetary value and not just a research value, agreements with commercial online genealogy databases was inevitable. For the participants, it is a win/win situation. FamilySearch gets the acquisition, indexing and digitization of the records subsidized and gets even more records and becomes even more valuable. 

Do the genealogists lose in this situation? It depends on whether or not you put any value on your time and the ability to find records about your family. There may be whole classes of records that will no longer be available to FamilySearch because governments and other record repositories will not donate their records to FamilySearch merely for the preservation and availability of a copy. But once those records became valuable, they will be more willing to share them for whatever price they can get given market conditions. 

A more suitable question, should be why do genealogists (and others) feel that all of the records in the world should be freely accessible? Where did the idea of free come from? If you live in a city such as Mesa, Arizona, you have access to a "free public library." Anyone who lives in Mesa can go to the library and check out books or use their resources, including computers and online access, for "free." So who pays for this service? Everyone of the property owners in Mesa or anyone who purchases anything in Mesa subject to sales tax. If you buy things in Mesa or live in Mesa, you help pay for the "free" library. So who pays for the "free" genealogy records online. The answer is a little more complicated.

Anytime records are online, some one has to pay for making them available and keeping them there. In the case of FamilySearch, those who pay are those who contribute time and money to FamilySearch, either directly or through donations to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Who pays for Easy, the subscribers and probably a few other people for advertising and revenue from the sales of products and services on and their other websites and businesses. In both cases, you can use the records for "free" if you want to go to a library or in the case of, anyone can use the records for "free." But remember, some one had to pay for the records. If I don't subscribe to, for whatever reason, I do not end up subsidizing their websites like I do the public libraries in Mesa or any other community. If I don't want to pay I don't have to, just as if I don't want to live in Mesa, I don't have to. 

But one way or another the huge cost of putting genealogy records online and keeping them there has to come from somewhere. So being upset because there will be more records and that there may be a direct cost associated with the access to those records is like hoping money will fall out of the sky and land in your bank account. It isn't going to happen in this world. 


  1. The usual complaint is that stuff that was once free is now behind a pay-wall. I'd like to challenge anyone to describe a particular access that was once free and is now no longer possible. Murphy's Law says there will be some such records - but I've never found any yet. Microfilms that were once only available at the UK's county archives are still available there, albeit possibly on the web-site that's digitised them rather than on microfilm.

    As a former IT employee, I'd like to ask the complainants why I should have worked for free?

  2. As a person who has indexed thousands of documents for free (for familysearch and others!), why should I have to pay for access to the documents I helped index?

  3. I have to agree with verneahartmann. Like thousands of other volunteers, my free labor put digitalized records online at Familysearch because I bought into the idea of keeping genealogy free. Maybe it is time for us all to rethink the value of our time. If we only provided our services for a fee, what would happen to growth of available online records? Unfortuately, we know the answer. If miniumn wage workers replaced us, the result would be like the old ASIS indexing of the census--frequently a garbled mess.

  4. "I bought into the idea of keeping genealogy free"
    But I have to ask - which records went on-line for free at FS and are now behind a pay-wall? I have yet to see any identified.

    To take one potential example - FS and its volunteers indexed the parish registers etc for Cheshire (England). The images and the indexes are indeed behind a pay-wall on FindMyPast. The indexes REMAIN freely available on FS - I still use them because they are much more sophisticated than the FMP indexes. The images were NEVER intended to be made freely visible on FS, so nothing has been lost. I believe, though I've no access so can't prove it, that the images are freely available in FS Family History Centres, effectively as "payment" to FS for their work in the indexing.

  5. On the issue of monetization of genealogy, I find myself caught betwixt and between. While I am willing to pay a reasonable amount to access databases, I worry that the less fortunate will not have access. Should genealogical information be restricted to only those who can buy it?

    My wife and I share an account on We have taken the DNA tests offered by We can afford it, and it yields us valuable information. However, if the information that could be provided by the poor is missing, is giving me my money's worth. Are links being lost? If you claim your information is the best, I want it to be the best. If it fails, you should be saying that your information has holes in it.

    As far as the quality of the information is concerned: in the golden day of databases, the information from every record was required to be punched in twice. If the information didn't match. the keypunch machine took a bite out of the card. It is called quality assurance.