Monday, 13 July 2009

Genealogy, can it be FREE

I've spent time this weekend listening to a free audiobook by Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and editor of Wired magazine. His book is Free: The Future of a Radical Price, available in several FREE formats including as a Sricbd eBook. I choose to download the free audiobook version using the easy download link near the bottom of this posting from COGDOGBLOG.

Over the years I've had lots of discussions with people who pooh-pooh the idea of free genealogy. Their arguments are mostly along the lines of "you don't get something for nothing" and "there's no such thing as a free lunch".

Anderson points out numerous examples, especially in the online economy. There the cost of serving up a few extra bits is miniscule so there are numerous examples of services being effectively free. He cites: free searching from Google, Google word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation facilities provided "in the cloud", free small ads on Craigslist. The list goes on and on.

For genealogy there are free databases like familysearch, FreeBMD, FreeCEN, FreeREG, automatedgenealogy, books on the Internet Archive and Google books, digitized Canadian newspapers such as the British Colonist, US newspapers through Chronicling America, and databases from LAC. Let's not forget a variety of free genealogy blogs.

Part of the "free" is due to the work of volunteers.

Part is supported by reasonably unobtrusive advertising. You may well argue that advertising means it isn't free. Anderson provides evidence that our perception is quite different about this alternate forms of payment as long as we're not taking money from our pocket.

There are also techniques such as providing a premium service, used by Dick Eastman who makes available a Plus edition of his newsletter to which only a small percentage of his readers subscribe. They get extra content and help support, along with advertising, the free edition of the newsletter which gives him the prestige and benefit of a large readership.

Even in the non-virtual world there a numerous examples of free.

Does it bug you when you pay a little bit extra for an item to provide a free service which you choose not to receive? For example, you don't use the store's free parking; you pay cash and are charged the same price as someone who pays by credit card; you don't collect the affinity club points offered by the store?

In most cases we don't object to these because the amount is small. Perhaps we rationalize "I didn't collect that benefit but I'll collect the benefits elsewhere that someone else will be paying for." It would be nice if that thinking could be extended. I don't have a kid going to school but I pay taxes to support the school system. Perhaps as a quid pro quo people who don't use archives or libraries wouldn't complain when I use those facilities which they don't, and I expect them to be available without cost.

Anderson's book is food for thought.

1 comment:

M. Diane Rogers said...

It seems to me this is a complex issue, with implications for the future of genealogy and family history and local history too.
In genealogy, as you note, most of what's available free -whether in your library, at a meeting or on-line - is due to the work of volunteers, many of whom are/working for genealogical groups and using group or individual resources to do so.
There may be a limit to this, unless we can all enlist government or other support.