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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Free and the World of Genealogy

"A world of records; free online" sounds like a promotional statement, but the concept of "free" is something all genealogists need to think about. I pay a monthly fee and own an expensive iPhone, just so I can access "free" information online. I also pay another fee and have access to Google Fiber so I can view my "free" content on an expensive iMac computer. I get in my car and drive a couple miles to a "free public library" so I can check out a book using my library card. Of course, I pay local taxes on almost everything I do to support this "free" library and for that I get a library card. It seems to me that there is something about the word "free" that I don't quite understand. Here is a quote that I think applies to our use of the word "free."
"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
William Goldman, The Princess Bride
I have written about the reaction I get to the concept of "free" from older genealogists who are on a "limited budget." How we view the expenses involved in obtaining an Internet connection, purchasing computers and maintaining them, buying software and subscribing to online websites, all depends on our relative economic position. But more important than our absolute economic position is the way we allocate our spending. For example, what I spend per month on Google Fiber is the equivalent of a dinner for two at an expensive restaurant or about ten meals at McDonald's. Going to a movie in the United States today costs, on the average, $8.61 per ticket. We have a major football stadium in Provo for the Brigham Young University football team. If I were to purchase three individual tickets to the next three football games if would cost me $234. To take my wife, it would cost $468.00 more than the price of a new computer system, just to go to three football games with my wife. By the way, that would be more than six months of Google Fiber Internet Access. By the way, the national average is that Americans spend 14 percent of their income on cigarettes and about 1 percent of their income on alcohol. See USA Today, "20 ways Americans are blowing their money."

Poverty is real. Suffering is real. Since the average demographic of a genealogist is a woman, over 50 years of age with a college degree and no children at home, it is not so likely that poverty, per se, is a major obstacle to doing genealogy. The current poverty rate in the United States is 14.8 percent from the U.S. Census Bureau but the poverty percentage for people over 65 is 10%. There is a real issue that we call the Information Divide separating the poor from access to information. But as far as genealogy is concerned, the real limitation is interest not poverty. Many public libraries and all Family History Centers around the world provide free access to online genealogy programs. Yes, there is a concern about both Internet access and computer access, but the number of people interested in actually doing genealogical research is very, very small compared to the number of people in the entire world. Lack of computer skills, physical disabilities, lack of initiative and many other limitations are much more a part of the limits on genealogical interest than poverty.

So what part does "free" play in the world of genealogy? My perspective is that it is basically acting like a boat anchor. The general expectation is that everything concerned with genealogy should be free and there are a significant number of people that don't think paying for genealogical information is a "necessary" or even optional expense. Here in Utah, hunting, riding ATVs, snow skiing and other outdoor activities are very popular. All of these "sports" cost hundreds and into the thousands of dollars a year. The cost of a season pass to one of the ski resorts in Utah is almost $1000 and that does not include the cost of the equipment. I could get a senior (over 70) pass for $525. That is just one resort, the cost of a multi-pass can run over $3,000 per person per year.

Now, what does it really cost to do genealogy? Even if I purchased a new computer every year and paid for premium Internet access, I would spend far less than any one of the "expensive" activities that involve many people in the United States. Also, since I have lived in both Argentina and Panama for years of my life, I know what "real" poverty is and looks like.

If you think about genealogy as an activity, it is very inexpensive. If you think about the time it takes, it can absorb your entire life. Genealogy is not really a hobby, it is a passion and an avocation.

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