Open Thread Thursday: The Content Wars

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Some readers may or may not know, that in my business – High-Definition Genealogy – one of the services I offer is market research within the genealogy industry. I follow the trends and issues, look at figures such as website traffic, demographics, etc. I attend conferences, meet with management of genealogy vendors both large and small, and generally try to have my “ear to the rail” so to speak.

One issue that has become more noticeable is The Content Wars or as some call it, The Content Race.  Namely, the practice of acquiring access to holdings of research information – both public domain and proprietary – and then digitizing them for use by genealogists and others.

I will have more to say on this topic later this week and into next, and I don’t want to share my thoughts and insights just yet.  I’d like input on this topic just from a reader standpoint without the influence of my written word.

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For our Open Thread Thursday, please comment on these issues:

  • 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 both free and fee – I am only using the most recognizable vendors as examples.
  • 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 a fee for access?
  • 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?
  • 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?

©2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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23 thoughts on “Open Thread Thursday: The Content Wars

  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 both free and fee – I am only using the most recognizable vendors as examples.

    I think this depends on who is doing the digitizing and indexing because each vendor has a different goal (to make money while providing information or just provide information). I think many of us would prefer free but that is not real life.

    • 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 a fee for access?

    I feel a good index and search mechanism add tremendous value to a record set. I also believe the vendor holding that record set with these features, that has a good brand, is worth paying for. Ancestry has a good brand. I know them. I trust them. I have found more information using their search feature than I would have looking at microfilm and then never finding my families because the names were spelled so differently that Soundex would not cut it. I feel Ancestry is expensive, but it is something I will save for to access those records more easily.

    • 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?

    I could go two ways on this. You have researchers who look up their family history here and there, and do not put a lot of effort into looking. Those people may only know the documents are available through their genealogical or historical society. It benefits the societies to have a members-only area to access those records to increase their membership. Then you have more die-hard researchers who will search every possible avenue to obtain the records in the most economical way possible. I can see those researchers bypassing a membership if what the society offers is available somewhere else for free, or less expensively, or part of a package such as Ancestry, which they already belong to.

    • 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?

    Keeping consumers engaged in genealogy does not seem to be an issue I see. Once someone is interested, while they may take breaks now and then, they usually return and continue the search. Perhaps there will not be so much hype as to new records being available to encourage new consumers. I can see that as a potential issue.

    I believe genealogy societies need to continue offering meetings, speakers, classes, assistance. The face to face contact that we all need. It is one thing to look up records on line, and another to sit and talk with someone who will understand your brick wall and talk you through it. It is helpful to attend a meeting or conference and hear something you have probably heard before but now it turns on a light bulb which will aid the research you are currently doing. Not everything will be digitized in the next 20 years so there will continue to be a need for societies to conduct research for those out of the area or who need assistance. I could see the research aspect of societies growing, and of course if that grows, their research fees will likely grow. Today Society X charges a non-member $10 to locate and print a marriage record. Tomorrow that fee will go up if the role of the society changes.

  2. Digitized records have revolutionized genealogy, and reached an audience like me who is far from her ancestors homes, and sources of records. I will gladly continue to pay fees to vendors who provide great index and search mechanisms. I also am grateful to the software pioneers that create viewing options, like Footnote.com.

  3. 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 both free and fee – I am only using the most recognizable vendors as examples.

    They should, and will, be made available following the business model of the company who has digitized and indexed them. I see nothing wrong with a company making a profit, and nothing wrong with a church offering records free.

    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 a fee for access?

    Public domain documents have and will be digitized by for-profit and non-for-profit entities. Since they are available from a location convenient to the researcher, that aspect as to be considered in the cost. Traveling to a repository, or sending a letter and paying a copy fee can eat up many dollars. While a good index and search function are valuable, that is only one aspect of the balance sheet.

    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?

    I believe most Societies use the income from publication sales to print more publications, thereby making more records available. I think a delivery system based in a website would and should work the same way.

    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?

    First of all, although major record groups will be available, It is hard for me to imagine that the contents of every courthouse and archive will be digitized, even in 20 years. There are currently many records which are not even microfilmed, so it is a stretch to imagine everything digitized.

    Genealogical societies should be based on offering research hints, help, workshops and local information through publications and the internet. Vendors who have a for-profit model will find ways to engage learners with classes, webinars and other learning activities. Societies should continue to publish local records which do not justify large scale digitization, such as church, funeral home, and other historical information from their area.

  4. I echo Jen Urban and Kay Strickland’s comments. A good index and search mechanism adds enormous value to a collection. Genealogists have paid for indices and abstracted collections in book form. There’s no difference.

    While there are noble souls like Stephen Morse or mission driven organizations like FamilySearch, I’m no Blanche DuBois relying upon the kindness of strangers. Far better that there be economically viable system that will continue to encourage the digitization of records and the maintenance of the websites to access those records.

  5. Here’s my five eggsworth :-)

    1) I don’t mind paying a reasonable fee if a company has gone to the expense of digitising & indexing a collection. The company will have to pay for archival storage of the originals, if they hold them.
    2) A good search system DOES add value – often there are several ways of searching for events, and as no index is perfect, it’s good to have alternatives to check before inspecting the original document.
    3) It would be useful if societies made an index searchable to non-members but charged for access to the documents. At least you would know what they had before you joined, although most local organisations I’ve joined have very reasonable fees. Again, they need to pay to store/index/digitise their collections.
    4) Genealogy vendors will need to promote their specialist knowledge of their particular area of expertise (geographical, military and so on) and I’m exploring education through giving courses and lectures. And there will (hopefully) always be people who want someone else to carry out their research for them!

  6. I’m of two minds on the general theme. On the one hand, as a broke, unemployed individual with school loans to repay, it really gets my goat to have to pay for information that’s in the public domain. It would probably bother me even if I COULD afford it, which I can’t. Isn’t the very concept of the public domain supposed to prevent our having to pay for certain information? On the other hand, I’m well aware that digitizing information is not a free or even a cheap process. It takes manpower, equipment, facilities, time, and other resources. As a result, I know it’s unreasonable to expect most organizations to be able to provide access for free. If they couldn’t charge for access, there likely wouldn’t be any records to access! As much as I’d love records to be free, I know it’s not a realistic expectation.

  7. Thanks everyone for the great comments and for also posting at your own blogs. I love Open Thread Thursdays because the dialog that comes out is valuable to the development of the genealogy industry. And let me tell you, the vendors – big and small – are reading these posts and the comments to see what genealogy consumers want.

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