I became involved in digging through my family roots nearly forty years ago. At that time records had to be meticulously and laboriously entered into forms with a typewriter, and most government records had to be accessed through the mail - for a fee. Today, of course, it is much easier. Scads of stuff is now available on the Internet, and computers make collecting and storing information much, much easier than it used to be.
But there is still a greedy troll hiding under the bridge to the past, and he is much more aggressive at shaking time-travelers down for money than the government ever thought about being.
The troll, of course, is Ancestry.com, a large corporate entity that has assembled a multitude of handy records and made them easy to navigate over the Internet. Ancestry also shares the family trees of most of its members with other members. The result is that anyone can come to the Ancestry site and, with just a little bit of patience, find a great deal of information on their family history.
But that easy access to one's personal heritage comes at an eye-popping price. Access to U.S. records on Ancestry - along with the family trees of others - is a pricey $198 for a year. A "World Explorer" membership, with includes Ancestry's U.S. and international records is a hundred bucks higher at $298 per year, and an membership in their Cadillac "All Access" program which includes all of the above plus entry into three other programs that Ancestry owns is a whopping $398 a year!
When I started slipping back into genealogy a few years ago I subscribed to Ancestry.com. I realized at the time what a gold mine it was - for the owners - and looked into buying a few shares because it was being publicly traded. Before I could get my purchase made, however, it was bought out by others who also recognized the company as being a grand champion cash cow - and taken private. The money was so lucrative that they did not need the pennies of peasants and outside investors.
Today Ancestry is everywhere. Google any name on the Internet, and it is almost inevitable that some of the choices generated by the search engine will be connected to Ancestry.com - and the company will provide just enough information to entice the researcher to "join" so that he can get the remainder of the material he is seeking.
One problem that I have with Ancestry is that it accepts anything that its members cough up in the way of family tree material - and then shares that information - sometimes flawed - with anyone who shows a connection. I found an instance once where a mother's date of birth was more recent than that of her child, an egregious error that was sopped up by a bunch of other researchers, without question, and then incorporated into their trees - leaving me to face information from a half-dozen trees or so that was all built on the same basic error. Garbage in, garbage out.
Another concern that I harbor is that when something good in genealogy comes along, it tends to get gobbled up by Ancestry. I spent lots of time sorting my dead relatives into a software program called "Family Tree Maker." It was the best on the market, so good that Ancestry.com just had to have it. As the yearly updates came out, I was again sending more money to Ancestry.
I recently began going to our local library to do a bit of family tree research. When I asked a lady in the genealogy room about census records - she referred me to the public computers and told me to get on the bookmarked "Heritage Quest" site. The was both exciting and nostalgic for me because thirty some years ago when "Heritage Quest" was a new family tree-oriented magazine with a national circulation, I had sold them a few articles, including one which was featured on their cover. The library subscribes to "Heritage Quest" now for a fee, and it is a basic research site. It does things like root through the entire United States Census and dig up dead relatives that years ago would have taken weeks to unearth. That afternoon I found several who had been misplaced for generations, e-mailed those census forms to my home computer by an easy feature on the site, an then went home to print out my finds. When I got home and pulled up the results, an emblem on the screen and on the printouts told me that "Heritage Quest" is now a part of Ancestry.com!
It's everywhere! It's everywhere!
Ancestry.com is an excellent resource for research, much like Walmart is an excellent resource for shopping for day-to-day necessities - and gradually each is becoming the only game in town. Ancestry is priced way too high, and for that it should be dutifully ashamed, and it harbors much personal genealogy that has not been carefully fact-checked and is therefore dubious at best. But, for those who can afford it's services, Ancestry.com, is a great place to start the hunt for those elusive ancestors.
I'm sure at some point I will have to suck it up and rejoin.