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Published September 7, 2002

Free versus fee, a foolish spat
By Sandra Devlin

This column was the winning entry in the 2002 Writing Excellence Competition sponsored by the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors. Sandra Devlin's winning entry was announced at the annual National Genealogical Society (NGS) annual convetion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2002.

I find it peculiar, to put it mildly, that so many who proudly label themselves "genealogy nut" get twisted out of shape when faced with a fee to recover a tidbit of information for their family tree.

Curiously, we are so very, very willingly to fork over thousands of dollars for computer equipment to feed our habit and would never consider asking the travel industry to subsidize our wanderings from country to country in search of our roots -- and yet, when it comes to "fees" for information collected by individuals or companies who earn a living by targeting the hobby genealogist as a customer, a tired mantra inevitably ensues: "Genealogy should be free."

What other hobby or interest is there that doesn't cost money? Golf, gardening, sailing, motorcycling, stamp collecting, religion, education or swimming, plus any others of a million more I could rhyme off. In all of the above and many others we make friends along the way who generously share time or energy as a personal favour and we reciprocate without counting the cost.

However, there is nothing "dirty" or "nefarious" about the practice of making money from a legitimate venture. Our lives, in every aspect, thrive from both private enterprise and personal interactions. These are not mutually exclusive.

Who would expect a stranger who happens to be a trained expert in any other field to tend to a family's personal needs -- doctor, nurse, funeral home director , to name but a scant few -- and, to do so for free? Because genealogy experts earn money from the invaluable services they provide doesn't make them less valuable or less needed. Yet, the mantra drones on: "Genealogy should be free."

There is another way to look at the business side of genealogy. When I gather a piece of information for a "fee" from a professional researcher or an organized company, I remind myself that I have just saved myself oodles of money and time. I have come across dozens, if not hundreds, of "clues" from the convenience of my own home, that would have cost me thousands of dollars in travel/lodging and months, maybe years, of my time to find independently, if at all.

When seen this way, how easy it is to exclain: "Wow, that was a bargain!" I eagerly recommend to others the competent and friendly people I encounter in genealogy-related business (just as I would recommend a good hairdresser, plumber or automotive technician who does great work and enjoys what he/she is doing at the same time).

I urge others to support instead of thwart the business end of genealogy, because as the entrepreneurial side of genealogy grows from our financial support, our hobby just gets more and more interesting.

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