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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Why Isn't It Free?
by Rhonda R. McClure

April 12, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Recently I have received a larger than normal amount of e-mail requesting ways to accomplish genealogy without having to pay for anything. In a perfect world, I suppose this could be a possibility, but we do not live in a perfect world.

For most, researching family history is a hobby. Sometimes, especially if the rest of the family doesn't support your obsession, it is hard to justify putting forth a lot of money in the pursuit of ancestors.

There are costs involved in genealogy.

Paying the Piper

Most people today are living within a budget. We understand the concept of a budget in our day-to-day life. We turn to a hobby so that we can take time off from that day-to-day life. It would be great if hobbies didn't cost money, but most of them have costs involved in one way or another.

If tennis is your hobby you pay for tennis shoes, a tennis racket, and tennis balls. You may also have to pay to rent a court. These are expenses you expect with this hobby. Genealogy also has certain expenses that are unique to it as a hobby as well.

Genealogy relies on records. As researchers, we need access to those records. We need copies of those records. Sometimes these records are easy for any researcher to access but other times special knowledge and a good deal of time are required. Some of them we have easy personal access to, while others require the time and knowledge of another to get them.

When we write to a county courthouse, we need to understand that the costs involved in getting the copy of the birth record are there to offset the time and hard costs involved in make that copy available to us. There is the time it takes the clerk to locate the specific records. There is the time involved in photocopying or transcribing the requested record. There are the hard costs involved such as the toner, electricity and paper used to make the photocopy. The courthouse cannot absorb such costs when you consider the vast number of family historians there are today.

It Should Be Free

The funny part is that most people are willing to accept paying for a copy of a birth record or a probate record when they write and request it from the courthouse. They understand the cost involved in borrowing a film to the local Family History Center. When it comes to the Internet though, the comment heard the most often is "It ought to be free."

Each time we go onto the Internet there are hard costs involved in that access. You pay your monthly fee to your Internet Service Provider. This helps the provider pay for the power to run their computers, the phone lines they have put in, the tech support to keep it all up and running. Beyond that point though we tend to forget what is actually involved in putting information onto the Internet.

The reality is that much more information is freely available online than anywhere else. Libraries charge you for copies. Courthouses charge you for copies. I think the difference is that we have to physically go to the library or the courthouse. It is a separate entity. The Internet though is not an entity in our minds, it is an extension of our own computer sitting in our bedroom, family room or office.

Don't Think Small

Despite my knowledge of the hardware and software involved with the Internet, not to mention the man hours involved, it wasn't until recently that I began to understand the real dollars involved with keeping us online.

We think in terms of that small computer sitting on our desk. Pick up a computer magazine or watch commercials on television and these impressive computers are under $1000. Why is it then that all these companies are asking us to pay for this access or that access?

My husband came home one evening and told me that his budget at work had been approved. He said to expect faxes with quotes on them for computers, servers and so forth that he would be purchasing at work. The faxes did indeed begin to come in and the prices on them almost knocked me over. Within a week my husband had spent over half a million dollars of his budget. What did he get for that money? Three computers.

The computers he was purchasing were much the same type as those used by companies that offer large quantities of data. Known as servers, these computers are floor-to-ceiling in size and are a far cry from that tiny box sitting under my desk.

When I describe the size of these computers to audiences to which I speak, the eyes looking back at me often get big as saucers. They begin to understand the costs involved in this type of computer machinery. When you add on the electricity, the special phone lines to connect these machines to the Internet, and the manpower to keep them running, it is easy to see why there are costs. This doesn't even begin to incorporate the costs involved in the digitization of the records we want to use online.

In Conclusion

In order for companies to continue making genealogy information available for us to use at our convenience, they need to stay in business. In order to stay in business, their costs (such as those we've discussed here) have to be recovered in some manner.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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