Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Content Wars

This week's Open Thread Thursday post by Thomas MacEntee at GeneaBloggers deals with the issues surrounding the practice of acquiring access to holdings and digitizing them for online for free or fee and the impact on societies. Thomas' questions are restated below in bold. Once I started writing, my comments seemed like too much for the GeneaBlogger comments section. 

1. Once a collection of documents is digitized and indexed, should they be made available to researchers for free or for fee? This means they would either follow the FamilySearch (free) or the Ancestry (fee) models. Note: there are many other vendors and providers bother free and fee - I am only using the most recognizable vendors as examples.

This issue of free vs fee is one that boggles my mind. I've heard people say they would never pay for an online subscription because the records should be free. Do those people really think that a company should pay to digitize and index records, maintain server space and hire staff to keep it all running just for the joy of making researchers happy? Or do they think the government should spend the massive amount of money it would take to put all records online for free? 

Granted FamilySearch is a great resource but most of their online information today is in the form of indexes rather than actual records so their free site really can't compete with some of the fee based sites for now. Even FamilySearch charges a fee to send microfilm to a facility near you so while their website is free all of their services related to records aren't. 

2. Does it matter if the documents themselves are in the public domain when it comes to charging a fee for access? Does a good index and search mechanism add value to the record set, to the point of justifying fee for access?

Certainly a good index and search mechanism adds value to a set of records. Anyone who has ever cranked through a roll of microfilm looking for one specific record can attest to that. 

In my opinion it does not matter if the documents are in the public domain when it comes to charging access fees. When has access to public domain records ever been free? I've never been to a library or courthouse that didn't charge for copies and it costs me anywhere from a few gallons of gas to several nights in a motel to get to them, not to mention the cost of my time. Even if I stay at home and order records, many repositories charge a research fee in addition to the copy charges and then I have to wait weeks or even months before the record is in my hand. 

3. Think about the holdings that genealogical or historical societies have. Should they place access behind a members-only website, even if the documents are in the public domain? What about making the index free but the images members-only?

Societies that put indexes and/or records online are spending money to do that so they certainly have every right to restrict access to their members. They also have good reason to do so. If they make their holdings freely accessible online, where is the incentive for anyone to join the organization? Small societies are already having trouble keeping their heads above water so putting even an index online may be out of reach for most of them. Most larger societies are unlikely to have the funding to digitize their entire holdings even for members only access but if a society can afford it, a free online index could possibly bring in new members.

4. Let's say that 20 years from now, most records of use to genealogists are digitized and accessible - either free or fee. What will genealogy vendors need to offer consumers to keep them engaged in genealogy? What will genealogical societies need to do to survive if their public domain holdings are made available for free? 

If all records were online then genealogy vendors could spend all of their time on improving indexes and search functionality but they might not have to do much to keep consumers engaged. After all, when EVERYTHING is available their products will be much more valuable than they are today with only a small fraction of everything being available. When (if) we ever get to this point, probably very few societies will survive. The ones who do will likely be those offering workshops, conferences, seminars and other social gatherings. 

To summarize:
When I decide to subscribe to an online service, I'm not just paying for the records. I'm also paying for the convenience of having access to those records 24/7 and for the instant gratification of having a record within seconds of requesting it. I'm satisfied that the subscription fees I've paid are a bargain compared to what it would have cost in time and money to obtain the same records from dozens of separate repositories. 

Would it be great if every record a genealogist could possibly want to see was online for free? Sure. Is that likely to ever happen? No. The bottom line is that it costs money to get records online so if records are going to be online someone has to pay the price and it's not unreasonable for that someone to be the end user.  

Now, I need to spend a couple of hours looking at census records - without getting out of my chair. 

Disclaimer: I currently pay for subscriptions to several fee based sites. I've never received anything free from any of them except for the occasional introductory offer that is available to everyone.


  1. Excellent comments Linda! I'll have my opinion tomorrow but let's just say it is in line with much of your comments and the rest of the community.

  2. Linda, Very well said! I agree totally! People who suggest that all records should be free forget that someone has to pay to keep the lights & electricity on and the climate controled air conditioning humming away. Computer maintenance is not free either, so how they plan on having all free is a mystery to me!