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Free Genealogy - Is there really such a thing?

Type ‘free genealogy’ into google and you will face 14,900,000 results.

When I first started my research, I thought that this little hobby wasn’t going to cost me much. I wonder how many of you felt the same?  I think anyone new researching their family history would be excited to learn that so much free genealogy is available, I also think they would be misled. 

  There is no such thing as free genealogy. Sure, there are many wonderful websites offering free transcribed data. There is plenty of free information about researching genealogy in the form of websites and blogs. There are plenty of places to grow your family tree... free, however, usually with restrictions, and they usually want you to upgrade to a premium account that will cost. (we won't even discuss the recent fiasco.) However, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of finding some hardcore documents, primary and secondary sources, there are no such thing as free.

In terms of the internet, most primary documents are locked behind subscription walls. Secondly, even if you’re lucky enough to find a primary or secondary document on the internet for “free”, it all comes at a price... your time.

Outside of the internet, unless you’re among a minority where your ancestors lived in your current town, you’re looking at extensive traveling, to cemeteries, archives, land record offices etc.etc. None of which is free. Let’s not forget the time to accomplish all of this. Why do you think so many of us spend decades chasing our ancestors documents – the time and expense, but we love it just the same. 

Do You Have a Budget?

 Many of us are on restricted budgets and time restraints, like laundry and soccer practices and a little thing we call a mortgage. Personally, I probably spend somewhere between $500.00-$1000.00 a year for database subscriptions, software, local travel, books, microfilms, photocopies etc., the basics of just keeping my personal research ongoing. This doesn’t include any conferences or large genealogy research trips. How much do you spend?  

In terms of time... let’s just say a lot, I put it in the same category as revealing my weight, I just can't say the number out loud.  

When it comes to spending your money, you have to know when the price will justify the result, and often times that is hard to know in advance.

Best Buys

For instance, I was looking for information on my Polish ancestors. I had a deadline for a family history book. I spent $500.00 with a professional researcher in Poland and got to the heart of what I was looking for in a matter of a couple of weeks. Could I have found this information for myself? Certainly. These particular parish records were microfilmed with the LDS. However, by going thru a researcher and paying my money I got 15 copies of original documents along with accompanying translations. (I was able to recoup the expense in the book price).

After seeing the documents it became clear to me I would have never have found them on my own. First, they were understandably in Polish; secondly, they were in an old handwriting script. Even if they were staring me straight in the face, I would not have known what I was looking at.

This worked out well for me, but plenty of times, I have placed my money on the table with no results.  This usually revolves around my Irish ancestors.  I’m sure you could tell of tale or two of similar circumstance, of money out the window.

I think the majority of us spend plenty of money on travel, and databases, we might scrounge a few things free – but for the most part, time will be your biggest expense.

Occasionally you get an email from a distant cousin who might drop something into your lap, (who doesn’t love that) or you stumble across something in the most unlikely place, and we might consider that “free.” How many of us have not been elated when this has happened, convincing ourselves we just got something for free.  Let’s be honest, we've been pounding the pavement for years, those little surprises did come at a price.

So newbies, I’m not trying to discourage you but don’t believe them when they say 'free genealogy', nothing in life is free and especially not genealogy. I would rather you start your genealogy knowing what you’re getting into, don’t be misled and be prepared for the long haul.

Genealogy is time consuming; it requires endless hours of searching even with subscription databases.  Many start and then reality arrives and their research falls by the way side. Genealogy takes time, it takes travel and it takes money but finding an ancestor is priceless. Ask anyone in the biz, we wouldn't trade it for anything. 

 Do you have a yearly budget to spend on genealogy?  Do you have tips and tricks to keep your expenses down?  Feel free to share in comments your “best buys” or “money wasted” story?


Claudia's Genealogy Blog said...

I think a lot about hiring a researcher but my main fear is finding someone reliable and honest to do the job in Europe. I would like to find a person that someone else has used and is happy with the results.

I suppose I will someday, but now I want to document what I find here in the USA so it will make the European search easier.

Debi Austen said...

I'm with Claudia - I'm focusing on the US for now. I have generations and generations of ancestors in the US which will provide me years of genealogy entertainment.

I don't really have a budget other than to keep the costs down and spend money as I have it. I was fortunate to visit the county in Illinois where many ancestors lived but that was just in conjunction with another trip, not something dedicated to research. At this point I'm spending the bulk of my money on subscriptions and death certificates.

Free Genealogy Resources said...

I'm definitely on a budget. When I first started out with my genealogy research, the only thing I had to invest was time. I used whatever freebies I could find. That's the reason behind my founding of the Free Genealogy Resources blog. I wanted to share the many freebies I came across. Even if I couldn't use them in my own personal research, I figured that someone else could.

Now, my budget has a little more flexibility and I can afford to devote some money towards my genealogy obsession. I attended my first conference last year and have plans to attend this year as well. I did finally subscribe to Ancestry because while it is free to use at the local library, it wasn't feasible for me to make multiple trips to the library with a young child.

I do occasionally order vital records if I feel they offer enough benefit to justify the cost. In the case of my 2nd great grandmother, I was disappointed. While the cost was only $5, I didn't learn what I had hoped. When I ordered my husband's great grandparents' marriage record, however, I hit a goldmine, learning not only the names of both sets of parents, but also both of the mothers' maiden names.

Some things, however, remain out of reach. The records I need for my husband's paternal line are overseas, with the only means of access traveling there myself or hiring a researcher that lives there. Unless something changes in the future, I can't further that line.

Time still remains my biggest investment in genealogy. Whenever I get the chance, I research. On my last two trips out of town, I squeezed in some research since in both cases I was in or near areas my ancestors lived.

Anonymous said...

Your blog post on free genealogy has stirred up some unrest I have about an issue, and I would like to get it off my chest and read people's opinions about it. If I am way off base, then please set me straight.

I invested A LOT of money (hundreds of dollars) in obtaining ancestors's records in the late 1990's and early 2000's. I shared scans of my items and pictures I owned with some very distant relatives I met online. Back when I did this, we all kept our family history research on genealogy software on our computers or in paper files. Social media collaboration did not exist. Now a person has taken all the documents and pictures I had given her and placed it on a public tree on Ancestry. So now anyone and everyone is getting my genealogy investment for free, so to speak.

I want to make a point to say that I loved collaborating with distant relatives I met in my genealogy research and had no problem sharing my information and documents and pictures with them personally. However, I expected that they would stay for their personal use. I did not see the social media sharing websites coming at the time I shared the items. Now, documents I paid a lot of money for (some upwards of $100 a piece for a search to get) and pictures I own are now free for the taking on Ancestry without so much as a source pointing to me.

I realize some of these items are public documents, and I don't own them, but my feeling is if I paid for the document to obtain, I should be the one making my particular scans of them public or not and deciding who I want to share my investment with. And the pictures I owned that were placed on Ancestry, do I now loose ownership to them now that they are being freely distributed there?

How do you feel about someone taking your time or monetary investment and publicly making it available without even a source acknowledgement? Am I being a scrooge about this? If so, I will let it go.

Lynn Palermo said...

@anonymous, I understand your pain. Unfortunately, once you shared that information it became free game. You don't hold a copyright on it, you only paid for someone to obtain it for you. It's like building a fence around your yard, all the neighbours benefit from your investment. Not much you can do.
The very documents I mention in this article I posted on Ancestry and they were scooped up in a matter of minutes without even so much as a thank you. My tree is now private, as I would prefer to have an exchange of information rather then feeling ravaged by other people online.

Unfortunately not everyone feels this way so I would suggest you share in a controlled environment. Many of us have had the same experience, your not alone. Try not to let it discourage you from being a generous person.

Lynn Palermo said...

@anonymous, as for the pictures, that's sticky, what do you mean by own? Did you take the pictures yourself? Copyright is a pretty sticky thing on the internet and I'm no lawyer and I doubt you want to go down that road. Unless your very clear upfront with the people your sharing with the waters can get pretty muddy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, Lynn, for your empathetic response, and I can breathe easy to know I am not alone with this situation. (I was worried I would be looked down upon at as the kid who did not want to share his toys in a community of people who are indeed so generous.)

It seems that one should have the sense to give credit to the person they receive their documents and pictures from if they are going to present this research publicly as their own -- but this is a gray area I see, and I tend to think too black and white. Or perhaps I am comparing apples to oranges. I guess I am comparing this to the working world where it would be looked badly upon to take someone else's work at a job and claim it as their own or plagiarize by not sourcing it. Social media collaboration and the Internet open the door to loss of control, but again, I state that what I shared was before these times of doing so. I naively expected these would never make it past someone else's scrapbook or computer. I guess I never fathomed Ancestry would one day have public trees that people would load their information to to be ravaged (as you cleverly put it) by people online. I will continue to be generous, but more controlled as you suggested.

Regarding the pictures, I had inherited them, so I thought that to mean I now owned them.

If I were to start a genealogy blog, would that mean whatever documents and pictures I put on it are free game as well for people to take and do what they will with? I also don't know what I am and am not allowed to post on a blog without stepping on anyone's toes. I need to learn what is considered fair use.

Thanks for your input!

PS. I am unable to make the upcoming FGS Conference in September, but I saw they are having a lecture called, "But It's My Family: Copyright Issues for Genealogists" by Cath Madden Trindle. The lecture synopsis says from the FGS program webpage: Whether writing or collecting a family history, this session offers a discussion of current US copyright law, International copyright, pending legislation, fair use, court actions and ethical issues of copying and sharing genealogical information electronically or in print.

I think I will order the lecture CD to this afterwards if there is one!

Lynn Palermo said...

@Anonymous, I may have to join you in ordering that CD, sounds like a wealth of information.

Anonymous said...

This is a great article, and I have to vent!

In my case, I expected to spend time and money at the outset. And though money is certainly an issue, I budgeted enough to pay for each month (which I find very helpful, as I use it almost daily for various purposes). I also spent most of this year paying a professional genealogist quite a lot of money to locate one brick-wall ancestor so I could trace that line of my family back to SOME country of origin. Though the genealogist found him (earliest date in 1789, with a land grant in Charleston, SC), I can't get out of the bloody U.S.! That means I still don't know whether I'm English, Scottish, Dutch, Irish, German, Swiss or even Danish on this side of my family (all possibilities, due to the surname).

I am an only child, I have no family left, and my mother was orphaned at age 5 due to her parents' deaths, so she had scant (but very helpful) information to get me to this point. There are no males to do a DNA test to maybe get at least a HINT!

So, the genealogist I hired called it what it was -- a disappointment -- but I can't let it go. I'm obsessed with finding this one person, but I don't know his parents' names, I don't know who he married, and all his seven children were born, married and died in counties during times and in places when/where records were not kept and/or destroyed.

So, investing a lot of time and money is a necessity for me. I'm willing to put forth whatever it takes to find out "where I'm from." And, though the genealogist I hired is very well respected in the industry (LDS), I'll "armchair it" using various government and auxillary sites that provide free access until I can save enough to hire another accredited genealogist near Charleston to do more nitty-gritty, in-person digging.