google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html Open Thread: Should Genealogy Volunteers Be Paid? | The Armchair Genealogist

Open Thread: Should Genealogy Volunteers Be Paid?

Last week, Thomas at Geneabloggers started a conversation about the State of Content Wars. The discussion was centred around paid vs. free content, the rush to be the first to get the data online, public domain rights and will companies run out of data to sustain the genealogy online industry.

I left a few comments in regards to this topic, but at the end of the day, my conclusion came down to this: genealogy has become big business.

Many genealogists, beginners and experts alike are more than willing to pay for access to online-digitized documents. Obtaining these documents through the old-fashion way of hauling yourself to various towns, historical societies and archives is certainly not without expense, so I believe many of us prefer the current trend of online access and that is not about to change. This very need has established a very large online market and a demand for more data. Along with conferences, books, online webinars, database subscriptions, software programs and DNA testing, there are plenty of avenues to spend your hard-earned money in this ever-expanding industry.

As Thomas pointed out there seems to be a rush to be the first to get these documents online. Therefore, I have to ask my colleagues and myself would it not be worth it then to pay genealogists and family historians to index these documents as oppose to the current trend of using volunteers.

Take Ancestry for example, (poor Ancestry, that are the example for everything), a publicly traded company with over 1 million subscribers, it has the means to spend major dollars advertising. They are literally everywhere.

I personally pay major dollars in subscription fees each year and have done so for nearly 5 years now, and will continue to do so. This article is not about bashing Ancestry. I love them; I believe they have changed the face of genealogy.

However, my question is this, why are they still using volunteers to index there digital documents? How many for-profit businesses do you know that enjoy the luxury of free labour.

Ancestry’s World Archives Project according to their website offers you an opportunity to help save world historical documents, and states: World Archives Project:

All indexes will remain free to the public on will donate copies of record indexes and images from the project to partnering government archives and genealogy societies.
Images and indexes from the project will be available free to patrons at thousands of subscribing libraries across the U.S. will provide free advertising to partnering genealogy societies.
  •  Note, the indexes you create as a volunteer are free to the public, however, if one wishes to view a document you must pay the subscription fee.
I will make it clear at this point,  I have never volunteered to index for Ancestry or LDS. My problem is with all the money they have to spend on running their perspective businesses, do you not think they should be paying their volunteers. Of course, they would no longer be volunteers but paid employees of Ancestry, or perhaps contracted by Ancestry and paid by the piece.

I don’t suggest this because I want a job. However, my time is valuable and I would love to index, but I have a problem with volunteering my time to index, so they can then charge me to access this very information and make a profit for their shareholders. To me that is not the true definition of volunteering.

It is clear genealogy is a business, expecting people to index your data for free is antiquated. Am I wrong? Would the data not be indexed faster? Would more people be willing to sign up for the task, if they could make a little pocket change? Could paying for these services open doors to a larger work force? Perhaps those who have experience in various languages, and handwriting would feel rewarded for their skills. Would a larger work force equal more data indexed faster, and therefore result in more subscriptions, increasing Ancestry’s revenue and therefore the bottom line?

I’m certain the think tank at Ancestry has reflected on these very matters. Certainly, I cannot be the first to suggest this idea. However, I suspect as long as family historians are willing to volunteer for this task, than they have no reason to change the current situation. Of course, if they paid the workforce, inevitably it would result in raising the subscription rate.

I wonder how many hours have been invested by volunteers over that several years and what would that equate into paid salaries. If that had been the route taken, could Ancestry have been the success that it is today?

I understand when genealogy hit the internet, and family historians realized they could help get these documents online, and by indexing, they could get faster access to these documents then it seemed to make sense to volunteers.

For the most part, this is no longer a not-for-profit industry and to expect your clients to volunteer their time so you can make money for your stockholders is a little on the warped side..... or very smart, because they are making it happen. Companies like Ancestry are not your local genealogical society, with limited resources.

I understand that you can get a discount on your subscription if you index for Ancestry, a 15% discount if you have a World Deluxe Membership. If you are not a subsciption holder you can have access to the orginal documents if you have indexed 900+ images in a quarter.

 Is Ancestry and others, missing a larger part of the population? Perhaps many who are not interested in a subscription, but would be willing to do the work for two reasons, they are good at it and they can make some money and therefore would consider a contract with such companies. I suspect as well those who are paid would more likely commit more time than their volunteer counterparts would.

I can’t exclude the LDS from this, although their site is free, and deemed a non-profit company, I still feel, many would help if they were paid. How could they afford such labour? Well, the LDS certainly have the funds to support a very large undertaking, and that very impressive vault, and the library and the family history centres. They clearly are looking to provide as much free data, and are moving at lightning speed to do just that. Could they not dedicate some of these funds to indexing? However, I have discovered that the LDS is very resourceful in acquiring volunteers. Did you know they use prisoners to transcribe documents? You can read an interesting article on this here. Should they be paid?

Why should the work force for indexing documents be free? What do you think? Have you volunteered? What was your experience? Would you sign up if they offered you a monetary remuneration? Could offering remuneration to genealogists encourage those with more advanced skills to sign up?

Feel free to leave your thoughts or a link to your own blog post response.


Lowcountry Africana said...

This is a great discussion, thank you for opening this thread.

We currently have an indexing project underway with, to digitize all surviving SC estate inventories for the years 1732-1872, in which volunteers drive the project.

For this project, we received permission from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History to digitize the documents, and contacted our collaborators at FamilySearch and Footnote to ask them to help, and they wholeheartedly agreed.

We are blessed to collaborate with them, we are an all-volunteer project and entirely self-funded. We save up our money to enable us to do this work and could not in a million years of saving, pay for indexers.

Unlike's World Archives Project where the index is free but images are behind the subscription wall, Footnote built this as a free collection - images and index, and they took on the expense of digitizing and hosting the collection.

They did so because they recognized the enormous historical significance of these records, and because they understand what we are trying to achieve in restoring the names of 30,000 enslaved ancestors in SC.

The project is entirely volunteer-driven. Some wonderful volunteers have made enormous contributions - incredible discoveries are coming out of these records every day, discoveries that will be preserved in an entirely free collection for generations to come.

Of course I can't comment on any projects but our own, so I don't know how other volunteer indexing projects come about, or if our experience with this particular project answers the questions you ask in your post.

If we had not found wonderful collaborators who believed in our efforts, and wonderful volunteers who index records, these documents would have remained available only on microfilm in three locations in SC, or on order from a Family History Center, with no index.

We are finding tens of thousands of names in these records, and many incredible stories. These historical treasures were tucked away on microfilms and would never have seen the light of history were it not for our collaborators and volunteers.

So we definitely believe wholeheartedly in the value of volunteer indexing projects. We continue to be happily amazed by the discoveries coming out of these records every day, thanks to collaborators who took on expense, and volunteers who take the time.

You can read more about our project here: Restore the Ancestors Project:

Toni Carrier
Lowcountry Africana
Restore the Ancestors Project

Randy Seaver said...

Good questions, Lynn.

Why shouldn't the workforce be free if the volunteers understand the compensation package and work rules? In many cases, they are volunteering to scan documents and index through their local genealogical society for the benefit of all of the society members.

Ancestry has an investment also - they provide the scanners to scan documents at the local society, and create the image databases on their servers, and link the indexes to the images. has to be aware of expenses. Using unpaid volunteers brings more genealogical records to the Internet quicker - and that helps their bottom line. They can offer more content for the same price and not have to rasie their prices to produce all of the content. It's a win-win for everyone involved, including the subscribers who receive more content more often.

As long as everyone participating is happy with the assignments, and the rewards, then I don't have a problem with volunteers doing scanning and indexing for free.

My two cents. I don't index for anybody, but my local San Diego society is doing city directories and other records on a volunteer basis, which will help San Diego area researchers.

Kerry Scott said...

I was an HR executive before I became a genealogist (and stay-at-home parent). In every HR job I had, my role was to set wages at the point the market would bear. We didn't pay people $12/hour if we could get qualified people to do the work for $10/hour. No business does.

So if there's a qualified, willing labor pool of people who will do this for free, no business on earth is going to say, "Hey, no, wait, please, take some money for that." They'd have to be crazy.

Plus, I can tell you that that expensive Ancestry subscription would be crushingly expensive if these people were paid. In nearly every company I worked for, labor was the biggest expense. So those volunteers are doing a service to all of us, by keeping those subscriptions (relatively) affordable.

That said, I don't volunteer either. I have two small children at home with me, so my income-earning hours are limited, and we have to eat. I can't afford to give any hours away. But if there are people out there who are willing to do it...well, that's a free market. I appreciate what they're doing. Without them, I couldn't afford any of my subscriptions, and I'd have to give up my research altogether.

Sheri said...

I have been transcribing and indexing records for over 20 years. Every last bit of it has be on a volunteer basis. In the begining, I did it for selfish reasons. It helped me hone my skills while I was persuing a genealogical education and it looks good on a resume :)

I haven't stayed with one organization any longer than it took to complete the project. I wanted to experience a wide variety of records. At the BYU Immigrant Ancestor Project it was applications for priviledged young men in England, Scotland & Ireland to enter the East India Company College and then manifests from ships taking convicts to Austrailia. At the Missouri State Archives it was death certificates and land records. Iowa Genweb was whole counties transcriptions of tombstones. Currently it is South Carolina Estate Records for the LowCountry Africana - Footnote project. All of these projects met my criteria - A) They were non-profit organizations B) The records were unique and filled an important need in the genealogical community. C) the records would be free to search and to view to everyone. D) They all really needed volunteers and they caught me at a weak moment LOL.

Yes, I jumped onto the and projects for about a week. I stopped because I felt like Lynn does - why should I work my tail off, volunteering hours I don't really have to spare so that these multi-kajillion dollars businesses could make more money? AND I pay for my subscription on top of that.

Seaver has some valid points - using volunteers keeps subscription prices down.

Bottom line is I won't work for free for big business but those who choose to do so I thank them very much.

Just my 3 cents.