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Why Does Genealogy Cost So Much?

image showing title question why does genealogy cost so much

There are two sides to how much genealogy costs.

Why Hiring a Professional Genealogist Costs So Much

One side is how much it costs to hire a professional genealogist. This is a pretty short answer you should be able to understand with little explanation. A professional genealogist costs so much because genealogy takes so much time. You are paying them for their time.

Would you be willing to spend several weeks (repeatedly) working on someone else's family tree for nothing? And when I say nothing, I mean you wouldn't have any money coming in to pay for food, housing, etc.

There is actually a TON of free genealogy help out there because people do love doing genealogy. But there's far more demand for help than available free help (there's usually more demand for paid help than professional genealogists that can handle the work, even!).

OK, hiring someone to help you or to do the research for you is one thing. Why else is genealogy not free?

Paying someone for their time extends beyond hiring a genealogist. Every single thing related to genealogy takes a person's time at some point.

Why Genealogy Records Cost So Much

A human has to physically get a paper record for you. At the most basic, someone has to go to a file room and pull a certificate, or go to a storage room to bring you a book of records. It might extend to identifying the exact record and making a copy for you, including mailing or emailing it to you.

Someone is paying for the cost of mailing (maybe it's the record requester, maybe it is the provider). Someone is paying for the email service used to send the records or at least someone pays for the Internet connection.

People often claim genealogy should be free because they have a right to the information, especially government records. Information might be free, a person's time to get that information into your hands is not. When a government agency provides information for "free," that means tax payers are paying the salaries of the people providing the information. Because genealogists are glutens when it comes to genealogy information, most government-funded sources of genealogy information pass the costs on to genealogists making the requests. If you can still get free or low-cost records, be ecstatic!

But what about online records?

Why Do Genealogy Subscriptions Cost So Much?

There's a trade-off with online records.

Online Access as a Cheaper Alternative

If we're talking about a government website (or even a church website like, the website can be a cheaper way to provide access to records versus the traditional method that required multiple staff-members to maintain and provide the records. These online records are being paid for by taxes, tithes, or donations (and keep in mind, even when records are digitized with a grant, those may be funded through taxes and/or donations---as a tax payer, you're paying for records you aren't using, be glad you can get records besides those your taxes directly fund!).

Online Access to More Genealogy Records

With online records (i.e. the costs a private website needs to cover) there's...

A person to gather the records together. Someone to digitize the records. Even with automated digitization, a person still has to do parts of the job.

Tech people have to create and maintain all the technical aspects related to a website: designing it, updating it, fixing it when it breaks.

Your subscription helps pay for server space to store all that information. Remember, those images you can zoom way in on aren't small files and there's millions of them.

A human is still needed to make sure there aren't storage issues, too.

All of these costs are often too expensive for smaller non-profit groups (including government jurisdictions). Paid sites like, MyHeritage, and FindMyPast are getting you online access to many records you wouldn't be able to access online otherwise.

FYI: There are records included in paid sites that are also available online for free. Not most of them, but some. However, in most cases, the access via the paid site is easier or the search functions work better. If you are on a tight budget (or just want to do tons of genealogy which means you need a budget), you need to spend your time learning where you can get records related to your unique research. Then you can decide the best way to get those records whether it's paid or free, online or offline.

All of the people that go into creating a website like are paid by your subscription fees. Although is a pretty expensive subscription, it's a lot cheaper than the access options before the Internet. Yes, Ancestry is a for-profit company. But if companies could not make a profit by selling genealogy subscriptions, how many options do you think you'd have for online research?

I've been doing genealogy since the 1980s. I know subscriptions to online sites are expensive but it's nothing compared to the cost to get the same records yourself.

Even if you discount your time to find all those records (and you have to find them without a computer that searches the records, which takes a lot of time), you still had to pay for:

  • photocopies,
  • travel (even if it was just gas),
  • individual record costs, 
  • postage if you didn't travel.

Trust me, is a good deal compared to what it cost to do the same research "in the old days." It also took weeks, months, or years to achieve the same amount of research you can now do in hours online.

Genealogy is not free.

If you still can't see that it costs money to store and provide genealogy records, it's pretty hard to make it any clearer. There are not enough volunteers in the world to provide all the services necessary. It's not just being a volunteer in a research room, the facility has to be maintained. Do you want to volunteer to clean the bathrooms at your local library or archive? What about maintaining heating and air conditioning, providing electricity, etc., etc., etc.

My parents always made a big point about there being no such thing as a free lunch. I've never really had issues with genealogy costing money because of that. Someone somewhere is paying the expenses associated with genealogy records. This doesn't mean I just pay anything, but I understand I shouldn't expect genealogy to be free. (The best solution is to create a genealogy budget for yourself).

One final mental shift that might help you embrace the fact that genealogy costs money is this. Some record providers (government, church, online, or offline---just some) explicitly charge higher fees to either make a profit or cover other costs. I actually don't think you should get outraged about this. The alternative isn't free records, it's closed records---no access.

As genealogists we don't want to be overcharged but consider if you're better off having the option to pay money to get records versus being denied access. (Also don't forget that paying fees can also mean money is spent to preserve records. Although repositories, public or private, might be supposed to preserve records, if they don't have the money, they don't have the money).

Most importantly, there's a cost you've probably ignored. That's the cost of your time. When you started genealogy, did you have any idea how long it would take? I hope you're spending your time because you enjoy genealogy.

Everyone's time costs a different amount so make sure you consider the value of your time when deciding if or how to spend money on genealogy.

There are certainly plenty of genealogists on a fixed income. They have to spend their time before they spend actual money.

But consider YOUR options. Could you make some extra cash with your time (to spend on an online subscription or to order records) instead of spending hours and hours attempting to do genealogy strictly for free? A realization I've had to have as a professional is that some records are cheaper to order than to access online.

Here's how this works...When I'm working for a client, they are paying my hourly fee. There are records online for free (or that I pay for a subscription to, anyway) but are not fast to access. Sometimes the cost to order the "official" record is less than what my time is worth. In my situation, this is vital to determine because my client is literally paying for my time and it might cost them less if I just ordered the record. Your time has value, too!

In your situation, where you don't have to pay yourself actual money, consider if you'd be better off paying a small fee. In some cases, a library may charge a very nominal fee for a copy of a record. This is often very small and much better than you driving somewhere locally and spending four hours searching for a record.

Even if you can use records for free at home, would it be better to save 3.5 hours and spend $5-$10? There isn't a right or wrong answer, your answer is the right answer for you.

Another situation where you need to consider if you should pay for records... You may be able to hire a genealogist to get records for you because those records are local for them but require overnight travel for you. It's a lot more fun to travel and do the research yourself but it might be cheaper, and faster, to hire a local researcher to get what you need.

Remember, genealogy is not free. The less money you put into it, the more of your time it will take. It's not necessary to hire someone to do research for you but at some point you will need to pay for records. This might be an online subscription, ordering records from a government agency, requesting copies from a library or archive, or hiring a genealogist to get copies of records for you.

To put off the point where you have to pay for records as long as possible, use (the largest free online collection of genealogy records). Check for free online records specifically for the location you are researching. See if you can use paid subscription sites at your local library or other repository.

While you're at your local library or repository, talk to the librarian/archivist/staff about other research options they have for your specific research topics. This might be books of abstracted records they own or options like inter-library loan. Before online research, these were the bread and butter for genealogists. Most of the collections built up before online research are still available, you just need to learn about them.

Although genealogy is about gathering information, getting that information to you takes people and resources. Those cost money. Genealogists are lucky there are so many passionate volunteers that provide so much for free. But there's far more genealogy needed than all those volunteers can provide. Remember that genealogy isn't free. The alternative to paid records is not free records, it's inaccessible records. Finally, make sure to consider the cost of your time when deciding how to spend your money on genealogy.