Tuesday, October 09, 2007

What Is Your Genealogy Worth To You? (DIY)

Do you think you can save money on compiling your family history by doing the research your self? A lot of people believe they can. I did. As I look back now on my 10 years of genealogy research, I'm thinking it might have cost me less money to hire a professional genealogy researcher to do it for me. Are you surprised? Let's take a look that some of the costs I've incurred.

Let me start by saying that I'm not going to include the costs of such things as computers, printers, cameras, or Internet access. These are things that I would've had in my home anyway even if genealogy research was not my hobby. So it's only fair not to include them in this analysis.

I'm also not going to include the time spent doing the research. Everyone places a different value on what an hour of their time is worth. Even if I had documented every minute of every hour I've spent on genealogy research in the last 10 years (which I did not) I couldn't begin to put a price on it.

So let's just take a look at some of the fixed costs that are likely to be incurred in the course of doing one's own genealogy research.

There's no getting around the cost of obtaining documents. If you want to document your family's history you have to have documents. Documents cost money. There are very few sources and instances where you can get documents for free. Any documents that can be borrowed from relatives will save you money, the more you can get the more you can save. So obviously that's a good place to start. Beyond that, you're looking at vital record documents obtained from state and local sources as a starting point. Here in Michigan, birth, marriage, and death records start at $26.00 a piece by mail. If you want to order online, add another $18.50 per order for expedited service and shipping. They're good records though and generally speaking they will give you many clues to follow up on later in your family history research. So even though you may be able to get some of the information found on these documents from online databases, in the end you'll end up ordering a lot of these documents anyway. These documents will run you well into the hundreds of dollars. And that's just vital records…

There's a whole other set of documents that you might find yourself ordering including: Social Security applications, Civil War pension records, military enlistment records, immigration and naturalization records, maps, church records, etc. There's a whole plethora of documents you can spend money on with a wide range of prices. Some are free except for the phone call or postage to order them. Others are quite pricey, especially if you have to send overseas to foreign countries for the documents and then pay to have them translated (I spent $445 for 17 records from Poland including translation, not too bad but I hear other locales are more expensive). Some documents you can access on microfilm so you only have to pay to rent them from the Family History Library. Microfilm rentals are usually a very good value (usually <$7.00 each) if they have the information you're seeking. All too often though, they don't. Figure on a few more hundred dollars here.

Inevitably, you'll want to take some classes, attend seminars or conferences, buy some books (lots and lots of books!) to tell you what you can find where and what to do with it. You'll also want loads of "stuff" that comes only on CD, so you can expect to amass a collection of those too. Seminars and conferences can get expensive quickly, especially if you have to add air travel and hotel stays to the price tag. Figure on hundreds of dollars just in conference fees. If you need to travel to attend, think in terms of thousands of dollars over the course of your research. Books... easily in the hundreds of dollars (some of us into the thousands of dollars).

And then there're the membership fees (to genealogical societies) and subscriptions to magazines and online databases. The thing is, one year's membership dues or magazine subscription seems like no big deal. What's $20? But, you will rarely join a society for one year. If you think you'll complete your research in that length of time... well, good luck with that (ain't gonna happen). So it's $20 for each membership/subscription year after year. Online databases can easily run you into the hundreds of dollars a year. Ancestry + Footnote = >$200/yr. Two online databases plus two memberships/subscriptions for 4 years and you're right back in the area of that $1000 mark.

I would like to make the point that you don't have to subscribe to online databases to compile your family history, but you'll want to. You can access Ancestry (let's face it they're the biggest player in this game) for free at some local libraries. And I've made the most of that opportunity myself having subscribed to Ancestry for only 1 year (at half price) out of the 10 I've been researching. But oh the lure of being able to look something up in the comfort of your own home at a time of your convenience is very, very strong. You can do it, but it'll cost ya. And once you do it, it will be hard to do without it. And when you go to renew, it's always at full price... no deals the next time around.

How many times have I mentioned hundreds of dollars in this post? Thousands? It's very easy to lose sight of how money gets spent on family history research because it happens a little here and a little there over a prolonged period of time. I've heard the numbers $3,000-$5,000 tossed around as ball park figures for how much it would cost to hire a professional genealogist to do your research for you. When I first heard that I thought it was ridiculous. Who would spend that kind of money to put some names on their family tree? Now I think about those numbers and wonder if that wouldn't be a pretty good deal. I know I've spent that and I've never traveled out of state for a conference.

I'll wrap up this post by saying that money isn't everything when it comes to discovering your family's history. I'll get more into the other costs and benefits in another post. But first, I'll take a look at the price of recording your family history in another article coming soon (right after I write a few posts on Polish Heritage Month).

Here is the series of articles I've written on this subject:
What Is Your Genealogy Worth To You? (DNA Testing)
What Is Your Genealogy Worth To You? (DIY)
What Is Your Genealogy Worth To You? (Recording)
What Is Your Genealogy Worth To You? (Sharing)
What Is Your Genealogy Worth To You? (Reflections)