The following article is from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright by Richard W. Eastman. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the newsletter is available at http://www.eogn.com.
- Why Isn't It Free?
Next, we need very high-speed connections to connect the hardware to the
Internet so that we can serve 100 or more simultaneous users who wish to
view these large graphics files. A single T-1 line is the minimum
requirement for 20 or 30 simultaneous users, but most commercial web
servers today are connected by multiple OC-3 connections. (I'll skip the
technical discussion of T-1 and OC-3 connections. Let's just say that
they are very high-speed lines, capable of handling many simultaneous
users. They also cost a lot of money.)
In most cases, it is cheaper to install the disk array, database server,
and web server at a commercial web hosting service than to build one's
own data center. Hosting fees for a high-usage database start at $1,000
a month and quickly go up. Way up. Commercial genealogy companies with
lots of users typically pay $10,000 or more per month in hosting fees.
This may seem high, but it is still much less expensive than building
your own data center.
The bottom line is clear to anyone with a calculator: more than a
quarter million dollars is easily expended to make high-quality original
source records available to genealogists. Following that cost are
monthly fees to keep this data available.
The result is a database in which one can search for a name, find it,
double-click on the entry, and then see an image of the original record.
In other words, primary source records are visible to anyone in Virginia
or California or Australia or anywhere else in the world with no travel
Of course, I have ignored many other expenses. When a popular database
of this sort is placed online, users will have questions. Someone needs
to answer those questions; so, we must create a customer service
department. In the case of a society, a few members might step forward
to answer questions. In the case of Ancestry.com, it means several
hundred employees and a large building with telephones, computers, and
high-speed data connections. Again, you can guess at the expenses.
Where did this money come from?
Yes, it would be nice to provide genealogy information online at no
cost. However, if you are the person who wishes to provide that
information, a few minutes with a calculator will quickly bring you back
I like to use the analogy of water. Water is free. If I wish, I can
obtain all the water I want at no charge. All I have to do is go to
where the water is located. I can leave buckets on the lawn when it
rains to obtain free water. If that is insufficient to meet my needs, I
can walk to the nearest river or lake with buckets, scoop up all the
water I want, and carry it home at no charge. Our ancestors did that
centuries ago, and we can still do that today if we want. Nothing has
changed. Water is still free.
However, if we want the convenience of having water delivered to our
homes, we will incur expenses. Our ancestors did not have this option.
Someone paid to purchase large pumps, and they paid for the pipes to be
buried underground to connect our house to the water mains. The entire
construction effort cost many thousands of dollars. In addition,
employees were hired to maintain the pumps and the pipes to make sure
everything continues to work correctly. As a result, those who consume
the water must pay a fee. Yes, the water is free; but, the pipes, the
pumps, and the employees are not. Most all urban home owners today pay a
water bill. We pay for the convenience of home delivery. Those who do
not want to pay the delivery fee could elect to have the water shut off
and then obtain free water in the same manner that our ancestors did.
In my mind, public domain information is the same. The information is
free, always has been free, and probably always will be free. I can
still obtain information today at no charge in the same manner I always
have: by going to the source records and looking at them in person. If I
want to go to the location where the information is located, I can do so
at no charge, assuming I am willing to walk. If the information is
located hundreds or thousands of miles away, I may encounter significant
travel expenses, but the information itself remains free of charge.
HOWEVER, if I want someone to conveniently deliver the information to my
home at any hour of the day or night that I might want it, I have to pay
for "the pipes" and for the labor of those who provide that convenient
access. We might consider the information to still be free, but the
"pipes" (the servers, the high-speed data connections, the data centers,
and the air conditioning to keep the equipment cooled, etc.) are not
free, nor is all the labor of the hundreds of people who are involved in
delivering that information to me. Those who invest millions of dollars
in high-speed data "pipes" and all the associated labor certainly do
deserve fair compensation for their investments.
Yes, the data was free once, and it is still free today. As always, I
still may go to the location where the information is stored and, in
most cases, I can look at that information free of charge. Nothing has
changed. The only significant change is that we all now have another
option: we can still do things the old way at no charge, or we may use
new, convenient delivery options if we are willing to pay for that
Personally, I cannot afford to travel to Maine or Texas or England or
Sweden to look at every single bit of information about my ancestors
that I want to see. I find it much cheaper to sit at home and pay $10 or
$30 a month to look at that information. Heck, ten bucks won't even pay
for the shuttle bus to the airport, much less airline tickets, hotels,
restaurant meals, and other required expenses to look at the "free"
The only practical method of placing large amounts of genealogy
information on the web is to have someone pay the expenses of acquiring,
digitizing, and providing the data. In most cases, this means that the
customers who benefit will pay. If the genealogy public does not wish to
pay the expenses of "piping" the information to our homes, we can always
do what all the genealogists of yesteryear used to do: travel to the
repositories where the documents are kept.
As for me, I will choose the cheaper option and pay a modest fee for
someone to "pipe" the information directly to my home.
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