Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Cost of Genealogy

Jasia at CreativeGene has been blogging about the cost of genealogy. It's a topic that hit home for me. She’s been at it for ten years, and I’ve just begun within the past few months, but I can already see the costs piling up. I work in the not-for-profit community, and don't make a large amount of money. However, being single without dependents does give me some hobby-money.

In some instances, I think the costs she lists are a little high. Especially for documentation from the US. They’re perhaps what they cost in Michigan, but document prices are dropping all over. Missouri’s death certificates from 1910-1956 are all online for free, unless they haven’t been scanned in yet, in which case they’re $1 if you’re superanxious. I ordered an 1854 marriage certificate from Gonzales Texas for $1. Chicago’s vital stats are going online in January. I’ve heard people say on mailing lists that in some county offices around the country you can walk in with your digital camera, and ask to ‘look’ at a certificate, and they won’t charge you the full price, since all they’re doing is looking it up. You’re not getting a “Certified Copy," but I don’t feel I need it to be certified. I just want a clear image of what is on the document.

Many documents do still cost in the $15-$25 range. Marriage, birth, and death certificates from the UK GRO cost 7 pounds, which is about $15 with today’s exchange rate. But there are many bargains for particular counties and states, and the number of these are increasing, not decreasing, as county and state agencies realize it’s more cost-efficient to put everything online than it is to hire staff to look up the documents every time someone asks.

Still, everything adds up. I’ve now ordered 4 certificates from the UK, and there are another four I know about which I will ultimately order if I can’t convince a relative to do so. ($120) There are also several marriage certificates I want to obtain.

I’ve told myself that ignoring any bargains under $5, I’m limiting myself to 1 certificate a month. I figure if I keep myself to that, I won’t spend much more than $200 on documents in a year. A birth certificate from the UK was my October purchase over the weekend. (One of my great-grandfather’s sisters.)

I started out with a monthly World Subscription to Ancestry. Since I found all the UK census records I’m likely to find, and the GRO indexes are free, I’m now at the Domestic level, until new international databases get added that affect me. I haven’t decided whether or not to subscribe for the full year. I probably will because I like being able to search from home, and I consider the benefits worth the cost, however I’m going to refrain from renewing next month and see how it feels not to have immediate access.

Hiring a Professional

I’m not sure hiring a professional makes economic sense if one doesn’t factor in time. Time doesn’t matter much to me. I don’t need to know everything possible now. On the other hand, I don’t want to spend ten years researching, and find out a professional genealogist could have learned everything I learned, but done it in a week’s time. I don’t think I’d feel my time was wasted, because I’m enjoying this. But I would feel like I’m a lousy researcher.

Still, I doubt that professionals are that much better at this. Better, yes. But not by that degree. They’re not miracle workers. They know more sources to go to, but I’m learning these sources as I go along.

Also, I know that whatever I pay a professional by the hour, they’re also going to be charging me for the documents, so I won’t save any money there. If anything, I will lose money, because they won’t necessarily be searching for the bargains.

And if I hired a professional genealogist, would they post queries on the community surname forums? I have, and found cousins, with information, and with scanned images of documents. Documents I would have had to pay for if I had hired the professional. And I wouldn’t have met a cousin in the process!

[On the other side of the coin, a distant cousin of mine who has done twenty years of extensive research on one section of my tree, has expressed gratitude for my interest, as I have read through her notes, and found some minor discrepancies other eyes have missed. Editing and proofreading are things I've received training in.]

Finally, a professional would also be likely to spend extra money on documents for quicker shipping so that they can produce the results quicker to the customer. Most customers like that, but as I said, time doesn’t matter much to me, and if it takes 4 weeks to receive the document instead of 1, I don’t really mind.

So I think in the final analysis I’d save time with a professional, but I would spend more money, and I wouldn’t extend my genealogical lines any further than I am able to on my own, learning as I go.

On further thought (10/11)

I do suspect there will come a time when I may hire a professional. Six out of my eight great-grandparents are Jewish, and I tend to reach dead-ends within one generation of their immigration. (That isn't too different for the other two great-grandparents, but their families have been in North America over a hundred years longer.)

The cousin I mentioned who has done 20 years of extensive research on one line, travelled to Lithuania multiple times to do onsite research. I don't see myself doing that. I do see myself finding a professional headed overseas to do some research in the Warsaw area, or Romania, who's willing to take on another quest. (That way one's only paying for the research, not the airfare.) I saw such a post on a mailing list a couple months ago, but I know I'm not ready to ask the question. I need to find everything here that I feel I can so that they're starting with the most information possible.

But I won't hire a professional to do research I know I can do, even if it's going to take me longer.

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