Out on a Limb: Menace to Societies?

Out on a Limb: Menace to Societies?

Join our quest to examine the state of genealogical groups.

Nothing rankles genealogists like losing access to records — especially ones on the Web. So when ProQuest announced it would end genealogical and historical society members’ remote access to HeritageQuest Online <heritagequestonline.com>, we weren’t surprised by the flood of responses to managing editor Diane Haddad’s report in our June 8 e-newsletter.

An outcry was inevitable, considering the trove of searchable online censuses, military records and historical books at stake. (See the June 2006 Family Tree Magazine for our complete guide to HeritageQuest.) ProQuest sells its online data products as institutional subscriptions, so individual researchers can tap them only through member libraries and societies.

The company’s move means society members who logged on to HeritageQuest from home will lose that privilege after their groups’ current contracts expire. If you get remote access through a public library, however, you won’t be affected.

Most respondents still decried the decision, offering several rationales for their opposition. A few seem to think free online genealogical data is a basic right, and Pro-Quest should offer everyone remote access because “it’s the right thing to do.” A nice idea, but not practical for a business — which, after all, operates to make a profit. ProQuest blames financial losses as its primary reason for curtailing this service.

Others believed the move was a ploy to increase Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > subscriptions, reflecting the (understandable) confusion over genealogy companies’ interrelatedness. Although Ancestry.com’s parent company, MyFamily.com, and ProQuest sell each other’s products, they’re separate businesses. MyFamily.com doesn’t own HeritageQuest (nor does it publish this magazine, by the way).

Of course, the greatest resistance came from disappointed societies and members. Their concern isn’t just about access to genealogy data: ProQuest’s decision could prove detrimental to the societies themselves if researchers drop their memberships — which, based on the letters we’ve received, isn’t a remote possibility.

“We will reconsider paying an additional fee for an upgraded membership,” writes one reader. Says another: “I will most certainly drop my historical society membership. They offer me nothing else to justify my membership.”

But some say the loss of HeritageQuest makes no difference. “A genealogical society has far more value than one Web site,” a satisfied member explains. “[It] is a gold mine of information and people.”

All this raises some interesting questions about the state of genealogical societies: Should they rely on third-party products to drive membership (and revenues)? What exactly is societies’ role in this age of Internet research? Are the rumors about declining membership true — or exaggerations?

To explore these issues, we’re planning a story for our new series of special reports.

From the October 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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