Apr 22, 2011

Money Changes Everything – Or Does It?

[The final chapter in a week-long series at GeneaBloggers. My previous post was What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free?]

I like the title Thomas gave today's topic, because money can change people, just probably not the amount you're likely to make as a professional genealogist. Think big money, like Powerball. Many lottery winners end up in worse shape than before they won, just a few years later. If you have the disposable income to spare, fine, but the people who spend the most money on lotteries probably shouldn't. I'm not necessarily anti-gambling, but let's be frank about what the lottery really is: a regressive tax. Or as I like to call it, a tax for people who are bad at math. If your plan for success includes winning the lottery, I'm not going to take you seriously.

Likewise, we should be serious about whether blogging is a viable source of income for genealogists, or anyone else. Apparently, there are bloggers somewhere making a living at it, but I haven't seen one in the wild yet. None of the several posts I read on the subject this week expect to make much, beyond keeping the lights on for the blog itself, and most had doubts about even that. I started my contribution to this series Monday, describing other benefits I derive from blogging. For me, it's mostly just writing practice, a creative outlet, and hopefully a place for my unknown relatives to find me.

Tuesday was about making genealogy a career, which I've seriously considered, but haven't yet made the leap. I like the idea of working for myself, but hate the idea of all the mundane business and administrative details that would entail. I wish there were job openings for pure researchers, or apprentice genealogists. I'm sure there are many like me, who feel we have almost all the skills we need to take clients. Gaining experience for a year or two, as an understudy to an established professional, could be just the jumpstart we need.

Wednesday's topic was popular. It generated more traffic and comments than pretty much all my previous posts combined! Most of the commenters were supportive, but one must not have read the entire post. Or maybe I hadn't explained myself well enough. I was trying to get across the often misunderstood point, that no cost to you doesn't mean no cost at all. There really, truly, honestly is no such thing as a free lunch. Blogs, forums, and other websites have monetary costs associated with running the servers and providing enough bandwidth for people to access them. The money might be part of the membership dues to your local genealogical society, corporate sponsorship as a form of marketing, or a passionate individual who funds their own website. It's possible to use many of the resources at no cost, and I don't fault anyone who does so. We just need to realize those resources might not be there someday if their patrons don't feel it's in their interest to continue supporting them.

Besides the direct costs, there are innumerable indirect costs, whose total value can't be measured. But I'd bet the latter would eclipse the former by several orders of magnitude. Think of all the indexing projects, transcriptions of records and gravestones, and all the other genealogical information available online. Then extend that work into the physical world, where the same types of activities were going on long before the internet existed. The public library here has an old style card catalog, with an index of manually typed cards; more than fifty years of names from the local newspaper, for every birth, engagement, and wedding announcement, obituary, and even plain news stories. The library had nothing to do with its creation; a group of genealogists did the work, and donated it. The opportunity cost alone for that project is staggering. And that's a relatively easy undertaking, intellectually. Anyone who can read and write could contribute.

Now think of all the forums, mailing lists, society newsletters, and now blogs, where people answer questions, offer tips, and in myriad other ways prevent us from making dumb mistakes in our research. The pool of experience and expertise in this community is immense. The time it takes to read queries and respond is minor, compared to the wealth of knowledge that takes years of study and practice to acquire. I could continue to bloviate on this point, but I think you get it by now. Many genealogists volunteer countless hours helping others, and they should be applauded for their efforts. Volunteers aren't given nearly enough recognition for all the time and effort they contribute to the community. I'd personally like to know who spent all the time indexing the local newspapers, so I could thank them. It's saved me weeks or even months of research.

We should also think of the inverse situation. Some genealogists choose to become professionals, and charge clients money, for doing what many of us do ourselves, as a labor of love. Nobody should give them any grief for choosing that path, and fortunately I don't think that's happening. A few comments I read on other blogs said as much; something along the lines of "is this really a problem that needs to be discussed?" Yes, and I think the discussion was overdue. Let's continue this thought experiment, and increase the scale. What if somebody started a genealogy company that became really successful? I mean on the order of thousands of customers, and millions in revenue? Doesn't sound plausible? How about Ancestry.com? They've become the whipping boy for the whole community. All these great free online resources are filled with hundreds of comments haranguing Ancestry.com. Some people have legitimate complaints, but many seem to have trouble expressing them in a constructive manner.

Subscriptions to Ancestry.com aren't cheap, but the value you get for the money is easily worth it. Both the content, and how they deliver it, are the best in the industry. (I'm referring only to the online trees, I don't use any desktop genealogy software.) The tight integration between their databases and tree interface make it easy to attach sources with information to the facts and events of people in a family tree. How you determine what's evidence and analyze it to conclude anything is still left to the genealogist, as always. Don't get me wrong, I still have lots of issues with them. There's lots of room for improvement, and they do some things plainly wrong in my opinion. But as far as I'm concerned, they're the best game in town. The online arm of FamilySearch may catch up to them eventually, but for now Ancestry.com has them beat. The research I've conducted on my family tree there in the last couple years alone would've taken literally decades otherwise.

If you don't want to use Ancestry.com, you don't have to. There are enough free online genealogical resources to keep you busy researching for years. But please stop beating the dead horse already. Don't malign either individual professional genealogists, or corporations, just because they're making a profit. Can we dispense with the false notion that volunteering, or working for a non-profit or the government, somehow places a person on some moral high ground? Nothing the government or any non-profit organization does would be possible if they didn't get money from people and corporations who are making a profit. The word profit has been endlessly disparaged in modern society. Profit isn't evil. Nobody should feel guilty for making a profit, if they're doing it honestly. When you and I work to our own benefit, we all gain in the end. Some old, dead, white guy, named Adam Smith, explained it eloquently, way back in 1776:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
I also think a distinction needs to be made between self-interest and selfishness, Ayn Rand notwithstanding. The profit motive can be a powerful force, for good or ill. But far too many people equate profit with greed, and they're fundamentally different. Greed, like selfishness, is excess, a desire for money gone too far. The old cliche, "everything in moderation," is a good guideline. And it is possible to have too much of a good thing (my waistline can attest to that).

OK, I'll get down off my soapbox. I didn't mean for this post to be so long, it just turned out that way. I didn't even get to everything I was planning to say, but I'll leave something for future posts.

1 comment:

  1. Well said! Thank you for the thoughtful evaluation of the genea-money-game. I've never thought "earning a living" was anything but commendable, and it still surprises me to find people who resent paying a fair price for goods or services. Good old Adam Smith would be rolling in his grave, not laughing.

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