Why Isn't It Free?
December 07, 2007
The following article is from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright 2007 by Richard W. Eastman. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the newsletter is available at http://www.eogn.com. Dick was our featured speaker on the 2007 Legacy Cruise to Hawaii.
I recently received an e-mail with a question that I have heard many times before. My correspondent questioned why some web sites charge money to access genealogy information. The question was simple: "Why can't all genealogy information be made available on the web free of charge?"
Indeed, in the U.S. and Canada, governmental records are public domain, available free of charge to those who can travel to the repositories where the original records are stored. Many private records, such as church records, may not be public domain, but they are also often available at no charge if one can travel to view them. When travel is not an option, a trip to a local library may suffice if that library has microfilms of the original records that patrons can view for free. (For this article, I will ignore the costs of sending a filming crew to a repository to make the microfilms and the expenses of reproducing and distributing microfilms. However, those expenses are not trivial.)
Given the fact that the records are already available "free of charge," one might question the need to pay $50 or $100 or more per year to access the same records on a subscription service, such as Footnote.com, Ancestry.com, Origins.net, NewEnglandAncestors.org, and other genealogy web sites.
First of all, the idea that the records are available "free" is only true for those who live near the repository that houses the original records or photocopies of the records. If you have to travel some distance to a library that houses the records you seek, you will incur travel expenses. Even a trip to a library a few miles away will incur costs for gasoline and perhaps for parking. Such records are not truly "free." A longer trip will incur airfare or automobile expenses, along with hotel rooms and meals. A three-day trip to a distant repository can easily cost $500 or more. For many who do not live near major genealogy libraries, this quickly changes the concept of "free."
From the genealogist's viewpoint, accessing records published on the Internet greatly increases convenience and reduces travel expenses. However, from the publisher's viewpoint, the financial realities of publishing on the web add up rather quickly when one looks at the expenses involved with acquiring, digitizing, and electronically publishing records of interest to genealogists. Such an effort is not cheap.
To be sure, there are hundreds of web pages available today at no charge that contain transcribed records from a variety of sources. RootsWeb has many such pages, as do freebmd.org.uk, genuki.org.uk, and many others. These web sites contain records transcribed by volunteers, and someone pays for the web servers without passing those expenses on to users. In most cases, the expenses are not huge, and advertising can help pay the bills. A few of these web sites may even contain images of the original records. Most of these sites have databases that contain hundreds or even thousands of records. In contrast, commercial services typically provide millions of records, usually many millions. With larger databases come larger expenses.
Let's assume that a company or even a genealogy society decides to make state vital records available on the World Wide Web. Once an agreement has been negotiated with the state, the company or society starts work. I will make some rough estimates of the expenses involved.
In our example, let's say that the project entails 25 million records over a 50-year period. (This would be for a state with a rather small population; many states will have more records than that in a 50-year period.) Digitizing these records will require thousands of manhours. It is doubtful if anyone can find that number of unpaid volunteers to travel to the repository, run the scanners, and do data entry work. In fact, the repository may not even have room for a crew of that sort.
If you own a scanner, calculate how many pages you can scan in one hour. Then calculate how long it would take you to scan twenty-five million pages. If I can scan a page every 2 minutes for a standard work week, I will need 20,833 weeks for this project. Clearly, hobbyist-grade scanners will never get the job done. Expensive, high-speed scanners need to be purchased. Five thousand dollars is a typical price for high-volume scanners, and this project will probably require two or more of them. Next, operators need to be hired to sit at the scanners 40 hours a week and create the digitized images.
This process only makes scanned images of the records, probably the simplest and least-expensive part of the project. Somebody needs to make indexes as well. The process will vary, depending upon what is already available. In many cases, someone sitting at a computer will need to index each and every one of the millions of entries. Add in many more thousands of dollars in labor charges.
Now we have created images, plus indexes to those images. We need some skilled programmers to combine all the data into one huge database. Skilled database administrators' labor also is not cheap.
Once the records have been digitized and a database has been created, the real expenses begin. This database with twenty-five million high-quality images requires several terabytes of disk storage. (A terabyte equals one thousand gigabytes, the same as one million megabytes.) The purchase of a high-uptime, high-throughput disk array of that size, along with built-in backup capabilities, easily costs $25,000 or more per terabyte. Add in the expense of a web server, a database, and the required software, and the cost soon exceeds $100,000 for the required hardware and software to make these records available online to genealogists. This figure does not include the labor charges mentioned earlier.
Next, we need very high-speed connections to connect the hardware to the Internet so that we can serve 100 or more simultaneous users who wish to view these large graphics files. A single T-1 line is the minimum requirement for 20 or 30 simultaneous users, but most commercial web servers today are connected by multiple OC-3 connections. (I'll skip the technical discussion of T-1 and OC-3 connections. Let's just say that they are very high-speed lines, capable of handling many simultaneous users. They also cost a lot of money.)
In most cases, it is cheaper to install the disk array, database server, and web server at a commercial web hosting service than to build one's own data center. Hosting fees for a high-usage database start at $1,000 a month and quickly go up. Commercial genealogy companies with lots of users typically pay $10,000 or more per month in hosting fees. This may seem high, but it is still less expensive than building your own data center.
The bottom line is simple to anyone with a calculator: more than a quarter million dollars is easily expended to make high-quality original source records available to genealogists. Following that cost are monthly fees to keep this data available.
The result is a database in which one can search for a name, find it, double-click on the entry, and then see an image of the original record. In other words, primary source records are visible to anyone in Virginia or California or anywhere else in the world with no travel expenses required.
Of course, I have ignored many other expenses. When a popular database of this sort is placed online, users will have questions. Someone needs to answer those questions; so, we must create a customer service department. In the case of a society, a few members might step forward to answer questions. In the case of Ancestry.com, it means several hundred employees and a large building with telephones, computers, and high-speed data connections. Again, you can guess at the expenses.
Where did this money come from?
Yes, it would be nice to provide genealogy information online at no cost. However, if you are the person who wishes to provide that information, a few minutes with a calculator will quickly bring you back to reality.
In fact, the only practical method of placing large amounts of genealogy information on the web is to have someone pay the expenses of acquiring, digitizing, and providing the data. In most cases, this means that the people who benefit will pay. The same free enterprise system allows those with a vision to offer desirable information, gives them the opportunity to earn their living by charging those who take advantage of their efforts, and makes it possible for us all to reap the rewards at a tiny fraction of the provider's cost.
I find this very interesting and informative. I had not realized that so much work went into each entry that I read. Thank you very much. Kathy
Posted by: Kathy Birnell | December 07, 2007 at 07:54 AM
I am impressed at the cost and efforts to get this information to the public. Even more grateful for the generosity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that give so much time and money and we access it free on FamilySearch.org.
Posted by: Pauline Pinnock | December 07, 2007 at 11:12 PM
That's nice, but it still doesn't justify over $150.00 per year subscription to Ancestry.com for the casual user. That's a ripoff.
Posted by: Dave | December 09, 2007 at 08:54 PM
Very good breakdown of expenses. Even the LDS films and fiche are not totally free, as they do charge a small fee for shipping and handling. Which, unless you live in Salt Lake City, would cost you a lot more to travel and lodge there.
As long as a genealogy site keeps improving and adding indexes and images to their site, I do not mind the subscription fee. Especially when I find information from clear across the country or the world.
Posted by: Peggy Fleischmann | December 10, 2007 at 02:36 AM
Our genealogical society has grants to put a lot of information on the web for free - the main roadblock is having it stolen and resold by companies like Ancestry - borrowed and given away is not a problem.
Posted by: Rodney Jewett | December 14, 2007 at 09:41 PM
I am fortunate to live in a city (Evanston, IL) in which the public library subscribes to the "Library version" of Ancestry.com and a couple of other genealogy services. My borrower's card gives me access to the services from my home computer through the library's website. Those without home computers can go to the library and use the library's computers to do their research. I hope that when I move, the town in which I settle will provide a similar service.
Posted by: Douglas Asbury | December 17, 2007 at 01:44 PM
I agree with Pauline. Over $150.00 per year subscription to Ancestry.com for the casual user is a bit out there. Their policy of automatic renewal needs to be changed also. A person may not want to be renewed for whatever the reason and should not have to remember to call to make the change. When the subscription is up then it should be up. Let the customer contact Ancestry.com to renew. Now that is a ripoff.
Posted by: David | December 17, 2007 at 02:44 PM
The other great plus for genealogists is that having expended so much to set up the business in the first place it then makes sense for outfits like Ancestry to keep adding more and more records at minimal additional expense. I'm delighted at the range of searchable and viewable records available these days.
Posted by: phiz | December 17, 2007 at 04:21 PM
I too am grateful for organizations that have made so much documentable material within convenient reach. I have found volumns of history on my ancestors that I would never have known about otherwise. Fotr this I am Very Grateful. The part that I object to is when, at one of the sites where I have paid, I enter a search query - say, for Edward Morgan and I get a page that purports to have an article about Edward Morgan and, after MUCH reading find an article that relates that Edward Johnson (was amomg those who attended the funeral) of George Morgan. Too often the material offered is not what it is advertized as being.
Posted by: Jim Hogan | December 17, 2007 at 04:55 PM
You make one valid point but I am not sure any of them have servers huge enough to house all the information they could borrow except the LDS site which collects information given to them by members and is better indexed than any of the more expensive and less complete sites.
You didn't mention an obvious expense of the other sites though. Don't part of their fees pay to give talks at the conventions? SMILE
Posted by: Hal Barker | December 17, 2007 at 08:08 PM
I would add two points. First, what about the investors? If someone came to you and said "I've got this great idea about posting old public records on the Internet, but I need money to do it. Could you loan me $100,000?" (assuming you were an investor with money to loan), would you just say "That sounds like a noble idea. I'd be glad to give you my money." You would, of course, try to determine whether or not this venture would be successful, and how much you would get in return IF it succeeds. (You may lose all of your money if it doesn't succeed!) When you're taking risks, you have to offer a nice return to get investors to part with their money. For a successful venture, like ancestry.com, I would assume that the people who financed the company are making a nice profit. There's nothing wrong with that - without the profit now, there wouldn't have been the investment in the beginning, and there wouldn't be all these records available. (Public financing and taxes are a whole other issue.)
My second point, not an omission from the article but a reaction to some of the posts, would be that as a commercial venture, this doesn't have to be fair and doesn't have to please everyone. As with anything we purchase, we need to decide whether the cost is worth it to us. Companies like ancestry need to price their service or product only at a level where enough people decide it's worth paying for. I'm sure that in a future version or the service, when many online services will be competing for the same customers, and investors have already made a nice profit, ancestry (maybe a competitor first) will start offering lower priced limited-use accounts for us "casual users". I don't subscribe to ancestry, either. Yet.
Posted by: mike | December 17, 2007 at 11:32 PM
I am happy to pay a yearly subscription to Ancestry.com! They provide a lot of info and I have a World subscription - so I pay more than most. I USE IT ALL THE TIME AND I AM GRATEFUL - I find something I can use almost every time I go to Ancestry. LOVE IT
Posted by: Loretta Mullen | December 18, 2007 at 12:18 AM
In some respects, your point is well taken. However, the prices charged are not merely $50 to $100 per year. Some subscription fees have almost reached $400 per year.
One may express the opinion that even those fees are warranted in this day and age. However, the quality of the product being offered is declining as the subscription price increases. The underlying documents are transcribed incorrectly. The physical plant (number of servers, the electronic interfaces) is poorly designed. The search engine has glitches. If the surname that you are researching is a large frequency surname, you may not notice the negative effects of the poor designs. If you are just beginning your research, you may not realize that the lack of search hits is one of those negative effects.
If the organization is charging top dollar for its material, should it not provide services that are on a par with its fees?
Posted by: Eugene-Louis Siscoe | December 18, 2007 at 07:55 AM
I volunteer to do indexing, and I can tell you that it can take hours, even for one census page. First one must familiarize oneself with the writing style of other centuries. Simple example, how many people today know what a "long S" is and how it's used? It looks like an "F"; cap or lower case is anybody's guess. During my day job, I make over $25/hour. So if I spend 3-5 hours on indexing one page, that's an expense that you don't pay, as I'm a volunteer.
Also, Ancestry has various options if you are an occasional user. I'd check into those. Yes, those fees can add up to more than the $150.00, but you need to calculate your time and need. Chances are one person's "casual use" is another's "full time use". It's the same as with a cell-phone company!
I pay what the services ask because the bottom line for me is the travel time and expense! There's a lot out there for free, and if you have the time and patience, you can do a pretty good search, and then use Ancestry for a lesser time, at a lesser rate.
After beginning with the free route and not having the time to commit to the search, I went to Ancestry. The convenience of having it all in one place for me is a bargain!
Posted by: Patricia Daly-Zake | December 18, 2007 at 11:05 AM
I completely understand the need to charge for services when the cost makes it necessary. I do not understand our own records being taken by Ancestry and then sold. They did not pay us for our information and therefore did not incur any cost to get it. In fact, the costs were incurred by us when we paid Ancestry for their geneology program and when we paid for the access of any of the information that we did not get for free. So our cost in compiling our own geneology information is ignored when we don't sell it, but some company takes it and sells it to other customers.
Posted by: Annie Mitchell | December 18, 2007 at 01:14 PM
I respect all the time and work needed to put the information on the web. You do need to charge a fee, but I agree the prices are outrageous on some sites. It can really "cut into" a budget for say someone living on a fixed income. I, too get discouraged when I enter a name on ancestry and it gives me one person with the first name and another with the surname. What a waste of time and money. Could they possibly fix their search engine to work better with the fees they charge?
As for me, I am truly grateful for all the free genealogy sites and I tell them so.
Posted by: Sandi | December 18, 2007 at 05:15 PM
I certainly can see the validity of charging for some services to make documents, books and other public vital information available to genealogists and I have gratefully paid my way online to cull the data for my family tree. However, it would be nice to get some recognition as a contributer such as in the form of a discount for providing additional and corrected information solicited by some of the web sites mentioned. I also know of many who withdrew their data when one site announced they were going to take (some felt it was stolen) family tree data they had provided without charge for all their hard work and then charge others to view it...no royalties! Perhaps as a result I see sites like rootsweb's world connect project seem much smaller than I used to, at least in the family lines I study. Meanwhile the tree data one has to pay to view is faulty, outdated or both and certainly can be misleading. And that seems a shame!
Posted by: Barbara Baker | December 18, 2007 at 09:47 PM
If there is data supplied to a web site without charge then I believe that web site is ripping people off by charging to access that particular data. My data which I had on a web site was copied and used by another site without my permission or reference so I removed my data but the other web site has it still available for a fee. Not very good.
Posted by: Ron from Australia | December 18, 2007 at 10:31 PM
The problem Ancestry gives me here in Europe is that they have pratical no inforation, if any, I am searching for. I never will pay with no waranty to find anything usefull to me. A way I see at other places is give only the yaer in the free data, for more detail you have to pay; so you know that if you pay you get some usefull(?) information.
Posted by: aplfan | December 19, 2007 at 03:02 AM
I am ready to purchase a subscription to cover records in the Netherlands and the US. The free searches have proven helpful but I've come to the end of the road on some of the family lines. Would you suggest your favorite websites?
Posted by: Betty | December 19, 2007 at 06:41 AM
per response by Patricia Daly-Azke, I agree. It frosts me that several sites obtained volumes of information from me, but then want to CHARGE ME to see what was mine in the first place!
Posted by: Bruce Biddlecome | December 19, 2007 at 01:19 PM
Patricia says it right; I first used Ancestory.com software and all my information went to their server then my hard drive went south. Guess what I had to pay for the information that I uploaded on the Ancestory.com server. I now use Legacy Software and suggest it to everyone. I have filed with the Attorney General Salt Lake City, Utah about said statement.
Posted by: Buddy Blacksmith | December 21, 2007 at 09:23 AM
You made your point:Ancestry does have huge expenses,
so they charge people for the information they've
But why o why can we download,for free,countless
genealogical books from Google Books and Gallica(the
website of the french National Library)?.
All these books had to be scanned too,I presume.
Am I missing something,here?
Posted by: José Verheecke | December 21, 2007 at 09:43 AM
I feel that the organizations on the internet that a person has downloaded thier entire .ged file should be allowed free access to thier own data so it can be updated. Some of us have be suckered into putting our genealogical information onto certain websites only to be kicked out for not paying outlandish fees just to access our own information. I lost my computer to a fire and would love to be able to redownload the information I placed, for free, at the different websites. Maybe we ought to charge to have our information stored for others to use. The websites should reimburse us for evey hit on our information.
Posted by: John Greene | December 22, 2007 at 07:00 PM
Should genealogy sites charge even if the data they have was free? They are like a public library. But I library is really not free. It is paid for by tax money. So everyone pays to have the availability of that information. Even if you only use it for a little bit of information the tax money pays for all of it. Those who have "stored" their data with a site and then find it the only record left should be greatful there is a source to recover from. They should have backed up their data. The free sites are not free.People are giving of their time and money (including tax money and donations). I'm not upset with the paying for such availability but rather the amount and way they charge for that data.
Posted by: Frank Hicks | December 24, 2007 at 08:41 AM
I like Ancestry, but I also am not happy with them annually automatically charging my credit card without even an automatic notification they are doing so. I try to use a credit card that expires frequently, so sites like Ancestry have to contact me for new credit card information or expiration dates at least every 2-3 years. It makes it easier to keep a tab on what is being charged to my card. When they contact me to say my credit card has expired, and they need updated information, at that point I can review whether or not I still want to pay for the service. Another option I have used is to dispute the charge on the bill if I do not want the service renewed. After reading the posts on this issue, I now know why I have not uploaded my GEDCOM to Ancestry or Rootsweb.
Posted by: Robyn Echols | December 24, 2007 at 10:12 PM
I enjoyed reading your article and the details involved in putting information on line. I have transcribed and researched information for years and made it available for free on my web site and I can totally sympathize with the people that see their own hard work used without permission on a for-profit site. But that seems to be the way of the Internet and big business.
I never resent paying for a web site subscription or a CD or a book. If I find value in the information provided I am happy to pay for it. Everybody has to eat. If it is overpriced I just move on. I am grateful to have the choice.
Posted by: Paul Maclauchlan | December 27, 2007 at 06:56 PM
Just a reminder to everyone that has issues with Ancestry (or other sites). While we as genealogists are commonly willing to share information at no cost with others, Ancestry is not a genealogist. It is a company - specifically designed to make as much profit as possible. If you feel it is too expensive, then do not use it.
I think we should all take a second and remember that what we are really paying for is primarily our own convenience. Less than twenty years ago, in those pre-Internet days, a genealogist would have to write letters or go on day trips to the National Archives or other libraries, etc. around the country - often spending a relative fortune on postage - only to have 8 out of 10 letters come back as dead ends.
We are only paying for the actual information on a secondary level, as the information is available much cheaper the "hard" way.
Remember, of "fast", "cheap", and "easy", we can only have 2 - not all 3!
Posted by: Michael Hait | January 08, 2008 at 09:36 AM