Family History Data, Should It Be Free?

There seems to be a trait among many family historians who all seem to want information to be available to them at the drop of a hat, for free and provided instantaneously as well.

Now, I’d like to raise an argument that this would seem to  defeat the object of much family history research. Is it not the thrill of carrying out a piece of detective work, in order to find an ancestor after ploughing through the databases online and then visiting the County Record Offices in person to read page after page of parish registers on the microfilm machine, that makes this pastime of ours fun?

Certainly, a good few newcomers to family history seem to believe that all they will need to is log onto the web, enter a name into a search box and they will instantly find their ancestors going back to Adam and Eve. Many do not think that they should pay anything for this, as if the state has some sort of obligation to give them the information on demand.

I don’t know if you have you ever looked into the searches that are carried out on the likes of Google for keywords? Take “family tree” as an example. I’ve noticed that the number of people typing in a search on how to get their family tree for free, was quite high. It would seem that some people express the idea that as its “their family” that they have some sort of right to be given the research.

When most of the newbies, to family history, find that they need to pay for a subscription to a website, in order to progress, they either descend into rudeness, or give up before they even get properly started. This latter scenario being an absolute shame, in my view.

From my website I offer a tips and tricks email which gives the people, who have signed up to my list, valuable free content. At the bottom of the email I often have an advertisement for my paid for products and it amazes me that I get aggressive emails back saying things such as “I’m not made of money you know”. To these people I would just like to humbly suggest that they enjoy the 98% of the rest of the email, that comprises the free tip, and just try to ignore the advertisement for my products at the bottom.  Do they have such a problem with commercial television, I wonder?

Expanding the discussion a little bit more, I’d like to bring in the arguments of the Open Genealogy Alliance –

As I understand it, they are arguing that our public records should be made free to view online. They make the point that, in a large number of cases, many public records have now been licensed to private companies. These business need to make a return on their investment and so the public can only gain access to the data if they pay for it. The OGA are challenging this idea, saying that the digital versions of, what are, public records are effectively being privatised.

In my opinion there certainly needs to be some sort of balance, the record offices and archives are all facing up to the shortage of funds in the present economic climate and perhaps we should all make a bit of an effort to go out there, whenever possible, and visit the various archives more often. A vicious circle where they many have to cut their hours, due to less visitors coming to see them and reacting to spending cuts could see the record offices and archives closed or amalgamated.

Until absolutely every record is available online, a situation that is never likely to happen, then we family historians should stop expecting instant records to be available to us at our finger tips. And, what is more, I do think that we need to get out of depending only on our computer and just go out there into the world to find the information for ourselves. Believe me, it really is much more fun that way!

What do you think?

The National Archives at Kew
The National Archives at Kew
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3 Replies to “Family History Data, Should It Be Free?”

  1. Could not agree with you more Nick. Have been doing my family research for about 10 years and have found very little via the Internet. I have found research using the Internet very confusing and would suggest the old tried and tested methods are best. One of the best I found is the local Mormon church family history centre – no charges very helpful people and nobody tries to convert you to the Mormon church.

  2. Actually, I don’t agree. And I think that the question of expectations and that of data availability are two quite separate issues.

    The real point of discussion with the OGA is this: data access is free – if you can afford to make the trip to your local archive at a time when it is open. For the many who do not have either time or transport, there are significant constraints. In an era when other areas are being liberated of these constraints, it looks pretty unreasonable that historical data is effectively being handed over to commercial operators to do with as they please and charge what they think they can get away with.

    The buy-up by Ancestry, TNA, Brightsolid and the like is also pushing the small niche-market operators out. The 1901 Census images cost a few hundred pounds to purchase – within the budget of a small family history society to buy and create a really good quality index, one that is 99+% correct (unlike Ancestry, which is about 50% on a good day). The cost of the 1911 Census is over £10000…

    At the bottom of this there is a cultural issue. In France the attitude is radically different: you are a citizen, and therefore there is no question that a relative should be able to call up data and have it provided for free. (This was certainly the case with the death certificate of my 2xgreat-grandfather, who died in Marseille in 1887). In Britain, the attitude seems to be “big money talks”.


  3. I totally agree that the best moments in searching for your family are those “Eureka Moments”. We could still experience these if every thing was online, but living in the real world this is never going to be the case, at least in the lifetime of everyone alive today.
    Since I started this hobby there have been great advances. These have come at a cost. Unless you live in the same area that your family have lived in for at least two centuries you will have to travel to do your research.
    This restricts most of us who do not have either time or money.
    Therefore the more that gets online the better even if it costs. For many of us the cost of online records is small compared to those involved with travelling and accomodation.
    Provided the records are still free to access at archives and the archive benefits from the digitization I am all for as much as possible being digitized.
    We must not forget that like almost any hobby searching your family history costs money.

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