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Why Genealogy Is Not A Free Hobby – Part 1

Name a hobby, any hobby, and chances are there are costs involved – gardening, knitting, fishing, interior decorating…the list goes on! All of these require the purchase of supplies, materials, etc, usually over and over again as long as the hobby is maintained. Genealogy is no different. We all have to buy certificates, subscriptions to websites that hold copies of records, or pay an archives to make a copy of a record for us.

I have heard many amateur genealogists asking where they can go to get free records, or why records cost so much to view online. It seems that a lot of people start researching their family tree expecting a cost-free or cheap hobby and are then disappointed.

It is very important in genealogy to conduct thorough and methodical research. Strong genealogical research relies heavily on citing original documents, such as certificates, parish records, wills, land records etc. While many of these documents have been indexed online, these indexes can often contain mistranscribed information or incomplete information. A baptism record, for example, might be indexed as William Bambridge, the son of John Bambridge and Mary Chamberlain. When the original is sighted, however, the record turns out to read William Bainbridge, the illegitimate son of John Bainbridge and Mary Chamberlain. In this hypothetical example, the index contains both incorrect information (the surname being mistranscribed) and incomplete information (that John Bainbridge was not married to Mary Chamberlain at the time of William’s birth). Citing the original document in this instance would provide the researcher with a considerable amount of extra important information that could help them determine if this record relates to their research or not.

These oh-so-important original documents are usually held by archives, but it’s hard – if not impossible – to visit all the archives that hold relevant records. Thankfully, in this modern age, the internet has become the genealogist’s best friend. We can now access thousands of images of original documents online, from wherever we are in the world. However, these images are often only available online by paying to view them on websites like Ancestry, FindMyPast, etc. The cost to use these websites is legitimate and is not entirely unreasonable. So, since it is not possible to conduct thorough genealogical research without consulting original documents, how do you access them if you can’t afford to subscribe to all the right websites?

In this post I explain why most online records cost as much as they do and, in the next blog, I’ll also provide some tips for how to access these records if you’re on a budget.

Why do record websites cost so much?

The main reason why it costs so much to view online records is time. When a collection of records is available online, on a site like Ancestry or FindMyPast, they have gone through a lengthy process beforehand to be usable by genealogists.

First, the archives that hold the original records have to care for and maintain the documents over a long period of time. This takes the time and expertise of archivists and conservators. Secondly, the documents are digitised by a specialised digitisation team. These people have the knowledge and skill to photograph or scan each page of the record collection so the information contained is legible. This process is a lengthy one, because time-intensive procedures are in place to make sure each page has been digitised correctly. Once a digital copy of a record collection is created, it has to be uploaded to a website, like Ancestry, and once uploaded it needs to be maintained. This work is done by people with skills in digital data and image management and web development. Alongside digital images of the records are also usually indexes of all the individual records within the collection. These are the transcriptions we find when we search for a person on a genealogy website. In order for you to find your Ancestor in the 1911 census, someone had to transcribe their name and details from the original documents. While some of these transcriptions are done via electronic text recognition, a lot of the work is done manually by humans. Transcribing a large record collection requires a huge amount of data entry work that can take months or years to complete.

As you can see, in order for records to be accessible to us online, a lot of people with various skills and jobs need to be involved. All of these people need to be paid. If you want records available for free, what you are effectively asking for is that all these people should work for free. Plenty of people volunteer their time to help digitise or transcribe records. I myself have done voluntary transcription work for FamilySearch. But I think that the people that do this work for free should be paid for it, in an ideal world! By paying to view digital records online, you are supporting all the individual people who made it possible for you to do so, not just a large company that you might think is taking all your money for nothing. 

What about birth, marriage and death certificates?

In most countries, you need to pay a small fee to a government record office to obtain an official copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate. This fee is usually not very high if you go directly through the record office. This cost covers the same factors as above, in online records – namely the time involved in maintaining the certificate collection, locating the required certificate, scanning it, and sending the copy back to you. 

And documents from archives?

In the days before the internet, if genealogists wanted a copy of an original document they had to visit the archive that held the document. They would use their own time to visit the archive, find the catalogue number for the document they wanted, apply to view the document, then wait for an archivist to locate the document in the collection and bring it to the reading room. Then the genealogist would search through the document until they found the relevant record and then, if the archive permitted it, they could take a copy of the document, such as a photocopy, scan or photograph.

Nowadays, while this process does still occur, it is more normal for the archive staff to handle all the steps in this process. A genealogist can now approach an archive, request a copy of a document, and have a copy sent to them either in paper or digital form. Most county record offices in England offer this kind of service for a fee. This cost varies between archives, but the general principle remains the same – when you pay for a copy of a document, you are paying for the time of the people involved. There are also other running costs of the archives you are contributing to, such as equipment maintenance, electricity, collection conservation etc. Archives and record offices, like many cultural institutions, are often under-funded by the government. So any contribution made by members of the public is a big helping hand.

It is clear that the money we genealogists spend on obtaining copies of original documents is not unnecessary or wasted. By paying money for these documents, we are also supporting the archival institutions who house and care for the original documents, and without their efforts we would not be able to conduct our genealogy work at all!

So what can I do if I’m on a tight budget?

When you’re trying to do genealogy on a budget it can seem impossible and it’s easy to give up thinking you can’t afford it. The reality is that there are lots of ways to conduct thorough genealogical research without spending all your life savings! I’ll be giving a list of my top tips in my next post.

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