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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Subscription vs. Free

We should all know that Google has a huge collection of digitized books online. The entire collection, at least those books out of copyright, is entirely, freely accessible by anyone interested. Many other huge collection of digitized documents are also free. But, for genealogists, having free access to many valuable genealogical records is the exception rather than the rule. Many genealogical records are only available after paying a fee or a subscription cost. This dichotomy between fee and free is seen as a frustration for many genealogists. In addition, there does not seem to be any consistency as to which records or types of records are available free and which are not.

A good example of this problem is the way birth and death certificates are handled by different states and even the same agency within the same state. So if I want a birth certificate from the State of Arizona for an ancestor back in the 1920s, I may be able to get a free copy of the certificate from the website, but if I want a birth certificate, also from the 1920s, from say, Texas, I will likely have to pay to get a copy. This can happen within the same state. In Arizona, if the birth occurred after 1938, then you will have to apply and pay for a copy. Much of the justification for these charges is laid either to revenue enhancement or privacy. But if privacy is an issue with a record about a dead person, whose privacy are they trying to protect? It also seems strange that the issue of privacy goes away if I pay the proper fee. True, some states also limit who can even apply to receive the record, limiting access to "next of kin" or some other sometimes meaningless limitation.

Genealogists compound this issue by exhibiting an attitude of "entitlement." Many genealogists seem to think that all online sources and all genealogy programs should be free and they are affronted when told that there is some fee or cost attached. These same genealogists don't seemed bothered when they have to pay to purchase a book or mail a letter. There is something about online sources and computer programs that seem to engender this feeling of entitlement.

One genealogical area where this becomes more than an academic issue is the attitude governments have towards records. For example, England has a somewhat longer copyright protection term than the copyright protection term in the United States, in addition, unlike the United States, government documents are covered by copyright protection. For this reason and also for the reasons which I refer to as "revenue enhancement," England charges for copies of many records some going back into the 1800s. The United States government, on the other hand, has no "copyright" claims at all to their government documents, but still charges for copies and has layers of bureaucracy making it difficult to obtain records. In addition, the U.S. government has given commercial enterprises, such as, access to digitize the records and then charge for access to those same government documents. In many cases, such as with the National Archives, a researcher can either go to the Archives and see the documents for "free" or pay for a subscription to or one of the other sites with such documents.

In some cases, it is interesting that the U.S. documents are both free and available through subscription. For example, has a complete set of the U.S. Census documents online for free, but charges for access to the same documents. Admittedly, has a more refined interface, but the documents themselves are the same. To make things even more interesting, offers free access to and other subscription programs in its FamilySearch Centers around the world.  Several other commercial online websites have complete copies of the U.S. Census records and there are other free copies online also, such as the set from 1790 to 1930 on that is free.

One factor that has affected this genealogical view of reality is that one of the first genealogical software programs, Personal Ancestral File, was distributed essentially for free. At one time, before the Internet developed to allow the program to be downloaded for free, the program cost $6.00. Many genealogist still use Personal Ancestral File for the simple reason that they would have to "purchase" a newer program. This is strange because many of the currently available commercial programs have perfectly adequate free versions, such as Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic. In addition, has a completely viable and very advanced genealogy program for free called Family Tree Builder. Again, there is no logic in what is going on.

I could go on an on with examples of both free and fee websites and programs. Another aspect of this issue is the "overhead" of doing genealogical research that is not usually taken into account when this subject is discussed. I have used this example before, many times. If you were to have to travel to the National Archives in Washington D.C. (even if you lived in the surrounding area), you would have a pretty hefty expense for the trip. This cost would very likely exceed the cost of a number of online subscriptions. The fact that these commercial companies are willing to acquire and make available valuable source documents is really a tremendous benefit to the genealogists. In almost all cases, the cost of the subscription is far less than the real cost of traveling to the original repositories of the records and gaining access, if access were even possible.

Maybe the attitude of the genealogists comes with the demographics. But still, I see genealogy programs and subscription services being put into an entirely different category than most other purchases. I am sure there are those genealogists who live on a very meager budget, but many of the people I see coming to my classes and attending conferences have the resources to access the records and buy the programs, but still have this strange attitude of entitlement.

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