March 2009 Branching Out: Making Ends Meet

By Diane Haddad Premium

It’s official: We’re witnessing one of America’s worst economies since the Great Depression. A third of us are concerned about losing our jobs, according to a September 2008 Associated Press and Yahoo! News survey; half worry about making mortgage and credit card payments, and 70 percent fret over shrinking retirement accounts. With all these money troubles, can people still afford to do genealogy?

Last fall, we asked you via a Family Tree Magazine E-mail Update questionnaire how the downturn is affecting your research. The good news: You’re not giving up your hobby. Of the 581 respondents, 66 percent spent less than $500 on genealogy last year, and half expect to spend about the same this year. Twenty-six percent think they’ll spend more.

About 40 percent haven’t changed how they research because of money. But the rest have, and more than half of those are learning less about their families as a result. Here’s how the tough economy has trickled down into genealogists’ pedigree pursuits.

Virtual visiting

Instead of incurring the expense of traveling to out-of-town repositories, at least a fifth of you are giving the Web a workout. This comment exemplified the efforts to save on gas, lodging and parking: “Internet, Internet, Internet, as opposed to travel to record repositories.”
Rural residents are even more affected. “I’m at least an hour from anywhere,” wrote one respondent, “and the price of fuel has stopped me from traveling to libraries, cemeteries and other places.”
That’s reflected in tourism figures: The number of US domestic air passengers fell 3.5 percent in July over the previous year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Labor Day 2008 was the third consecutive summer holiday with travel declines, reported AAA. Fewer genealogists go to national conferences: Though official figures weren’t available, an estimated 800 attended September’s Federation of Genealogical Societies conference, compared to about 1,500 the year before. Roughly 1,600 turned out for the National Genealogical Society (NGS) conference in April, compared to 2,000 in 2007. (Conference coordinator Jeanne Lund notes NGS is pleased with its 2008 numbers, and expected the 2007 conference to be bigger because of its location.)
Family history Web sites often benefit when you research at home. Genealogy was the third highest gaining online category in unique visitors (behind politics and career services) in September, according to the Web-watching service comScore. Interestingly, even though 15 percent of our survey takers mentioned eliminating online subscriptions, continues to grow. In October, paid subscriptions for sites in the United States and eight other countries stood at 900,000, an increase of 80,000 over the previous year.
“Business and activity on the site has been pretty strong,” says Tim Sullivan, president of “We’re not seeing a drop in traffic or a decline in new subscriptions. Maybe we will see it; it’s still early.” He attributes the growth to the company’s investments in new content and marketing, as well as researchers’ desire to pursue genealogy over other activities.

In addition, they may view subscription sites as a savings opportunity. “I complain about the cost,” a respondent commented, “but look at the savings in travel and access to records that I wouldn’t find otherwise.”

Though he acknowledges’s costs are going up, Sullivan says the company has no plans to raise subscription fees.

Free thinkers

Public library use tends to rise in a struggling economy, as patrons take advantage of free services from Internet access to job training. Cumberland County, Pa., library staff, for example, saw higher-than-expected use in 2008. From April to June, visits rose 20 percent, items borrowed increased 3 percent and computer use increased 17 percent. At Salt Lake City’s Family History Library, spokesperson Paul Nauta says visits during the third quarter of 2008 are up 3 percent over the same time the previous year.

Our survey indicates you’re borrowing instead of buying books, getting microfilm through interlibrary loan and using libraries’ databases, including Ancestry Library Edition, HeritageQuest Online and NewsBank. “I’m doing more research at local repositories in databases and books,” wrote one respondent.

Ironically, as use rises, library endowments are shrinking, donors (which have traditionally included banks) are giving less, and funding from property, income and sales taxes is declining. That could mean staff reductions, branch closures and higher late fees.

For what it’s worth

The National Archives and Records Administration infamously doubled the price of a Civil War pension record in 2007, and many states have raised vital-record fees over the past few years (see typical research costs in the box above). Such fees have led at least 14 percent of you to limit record requests or avoid them in favor of obituary, cemetery and other, less-costly records. “The average genealogist has been priced out of the records market,” said an Ohio resident. “In my state, most birth and death records cost a minimum of $15 each. It’s $22 for [an uncertified] death certificate from New York.”

But 61 percent of those surveyed thought most genealogy businesses and repositories charge appropriate fees. Many of you said non-genealogy prices squeeze your budgets the tightest. “The general cost of living has gone up,” wrote one person, “which means I have to cut into my genealogy funds to pay for food, gas and everyday expenses.”

So how are three-quarters of you spending the same or more on research this year? By getting creative and making choices (see our budget genealogy section on page 16). Keeping abreast of genealogy news lets this respondent research more cost-effectively: “Between RSS feeds of genealogy blogs and trips to my local Family History Center (I volunteer once a week), I’ve been able to change where I spend my money.”
 “More knowledge of how to research has helped me save,” commented another.
Some of you prioritize family lines or other research goals, like the respondent who wrote, “I do as much research as I can on the Internet, and then narrow down my most important and least accessible research to a Family History Center, historical society or county courthouse.”
And as Sullivan surmised, you may rank genealogy above other spending options. “I don’t allow the cost to affect my research,” wrote one researcher. “The results are too important to me and my family.” Depending whom you ask, we may or may not be in a recession. Either way, it’s clear the economy affects how you find your family—but isn’t keeping you from it.
At What Cost?
Here’s what genealogists pay for commonly used records and services:
Civil War pension file from the National Archives: $75
Social Security application: $27
state vital records: average $13 each (New York is highest at $30 per record; Florida is lowest at $5)
Family History Library microfilm rental: $5.50 per roll US subscription: $155.40 per year world subscription: $299.40 per year
Footnote subscription: $79.95 per year
World Vital Records US subscription: $39.96 per year
genealogy software: $20 to $100
From the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine