Genealogical Societies Publishing Data on the Internet

  • This was my first article and it caused quite a commotion. It was originally published in the Winter 1997 edition of the FGS Forum. I want to thank Sandra Lubking for her editting. I have always said that I had given her enough words so that she was able to move them around and create an interesting article.

    • People definately had very strong positions one way or another. It also appeared in the online publication MISSING LINKS: RootsWeb's Genealogy Journal Vol. 4, No. 30 on 21 July 1999 where it received hundreds of comments from around the world.

    • It was also reprinted in the Family Tree Magazine (UK) about a year later with additional comments.

Why Should A Genealogy Society Give Records Away?

By Jeffrey A. Bockman, Naperville, IL

Originally published in the FGS FORUM, Winter 1997, page 25

There is a vast amount of family history currently available on the Internet and on CDROM that is incorrect, undocumented, or fictitious. Yet, with the growing interest in family history many searchers will stop with these easy-to-find "instant families." David E. Rencher stated in "Where In Cyberspace Are We?" (FORUM 9:2 (Summer 1997) page 3), that presently the Internet offers a search environment but "the field of electronic genealogy... has yet to create a research environment." Genealogy societies should be leading the way in creating a research environment by providing information so that verifying an "instant family" is as convenient as finding the family in the first place. But how?

One way in which societies can help to create a research environment is to rethink traditional ways of distributing and sharing the information that they compile. The traditional method of sharing is to publish and the process is:

1. Compile information from vital records, cemeteries, ledger books and other sources and enter into a word or data processing program; then format and proofread.

2. Take the manuscript to a printer and have it published.

3. Store, advertise, and hopefully sell the resulting publication.

A closer look at this process shows while step 1 is critical in getting the information in a form that can be shared with others, the dissemination, steps 2 and 3, is open to question. Step 2 benefits a printer/publisher while step 3 benefits a society-but only if sales are good and income exceeds expenses.

This traditional procedure has other flaws. First, distribution potential is limited. A user benefits if he or she can find the publication, but it may only be available from the society by mail or at local workshops. If it is advertised in national genealogical publications, it competes with hundreds, perhaps thousands of similar titles. Even library use is limited: users may find the book only in a local, regional or national library which specializes in genealogy. Thus, a researcher could spend more time and money trying to locate the information than in actually using the information.

The market is limited, too. Few people want to purchase a publication to look up only one or two events. They have other options. They can ask the county clerk or the cemetery office to find one or two entries. Or, they may write to the genealogical society who offers searches as a courtesy or for a slight fee.

A third drawback is the risk involved. The society takes all of the risk. It has to determine print quantity based upon printer volume costs, anticipated demand, and storage facilities. The society must advertise and give free copies to some libraries or for book reviews. Society volunteers must retrieve books from storage, haul, unpack, and display them at conferences, then box and return unsold books to storage. If publishing, storage and advertising costs, and the wear and tear on volunteers exceed profits, the risk has been too great.

This traditional distribution channel, with its flaws, should cause societies to reexamine their ultimate goal in compiling and distributing information. If society goals are to a) preserve and make available genealogical information; b) promote an interest in genealogy; and c) encourage proper research techniques; there may be a better way to achieve them.

Why Not Share With Everybody?

The target audience for the dissemination of information in published form are the society members, people doing research in the jurisdiction, and patrons of selected libraries. This is really a very small audience. If a society seeks to share information with the widest possible audience, why not share with everybody?

The Internet is the new communications frontier. Anyplace in the world is only nano-seconds away. If every society and county government put their records on-line a researcher who only needs information about a single event would be able look it up from home or the local library with internet access or at an "Internet coffee shop."

Ideally, if the person found the desired event from a detailed on-line index, they could order a copy of the certified record by entering credit card information or obtaining an invoice number. Further down the Internet road, the actual certificate could be scanned and stored on-line and viewed or transmitted automatically. Authenticity or a means of preventing manipulation of the image would need to be established.


While many societies are beginning to discuss this issue they look at it from a personal or society viewpoint rather than from a global viewpoint. Instead, consider a wider range of benefits:


    • None - loss of income

Government Agencies:

    • Time savings from not having to look in book indexes

    • Faster access by using the electronic index

    • Only activity would be with paid certificate requests

    • Possibly less floor space needed for index storage and access

Genealogical Society

    • No financial risk from over-printing

    • No handling and storage, save time and costs

    • Less Income but less need to purchase other indexes

    • Improved recognition and wider audience with home page link

    • Requests for hard copy can be automated and printed on demand

Global Audience

    • Faster, easier access to useful research data from across the country without leaving home

    • Eliminates need to review on-line library catalogs trying to find the closest copy of a printed index

    • Information could be annotated to show corrections and the source


    • Attend sessions and socialize rather than sitting in a hallway selling books

    • Do not have to wait for replies to letters and the cost of SASEs

    • Achieve immediate action and results on new clues or ideas

    • Could actually spend time doing research on their own family


There is already competition to some of the traditional functions done by a society. GenWeb is providing information on area resources and posting queries. Volunteers on the Internet are providing free research. Libraries and counties are putting records on-line to preserve them, and to save storage, viewing, and parking space.

If one of the purposes of a genealogical society is to help make information readily available then what better method is there? Societies are non-profit organizations. What money they do realize from publication sales often goes to purchase other publications for the use of members. But there are other options. Money can be earned through workshop, class, or lecture fees. Profits can be used to disseminate information more widely: by providing additional Internet resources, Internet access at the local library or society library or office, or supporting the storage and access cost of the county GenWeb site, a society home page or on-line vital record storage.

Once a society is convinced of the benefits of this new and more effective way of disseminating information, they can start small and work up to more ambitious projects:

1. Provide the following information on-line:

    • Places to do research, hours and holdings

    • Handy guide to the type of historical information that is available

    • Access instructions to vital records or the indexes

    • Queries

2. Compile indexes and make them easily available.

3. Assist counties and repositories in getting images of the actual records on-line with easy search and retrieval systems.

If everyone would "Do for others as you would like them to do for you," we could all make electronic genealogy work for us. We could be making verification of information now available in Internet's search environment quick and easy. We could be establishing research environments to complement and enhance the existing search environment, and we could be turning searchers into researchers.