There is a troubling trend worldwide, for genealogists, that seems to be taking root here in the United States. For many years, The National Archives of the United Kingdom has been making money on the records over which they have stewardship. They have entered into partnerships with commercial entities and receive royalties for many of the records that are published online. The National Archives of Sweden has followed suit and is now charging for access to their records.
There is a saying in the Internet world that “information wants to be free.” Wikipedia is an example of a service where information has become free to all of its users. FamilySearch has consistently made its records available for free online. The trend had been, with the exception of the UK and some other nations that archives would publish their records for free. This attitude seems to be changing.
From one perspective what these national archives are doing is no different from what government entities have done in many areas by charging for their services. During this time of budget challenges for governments, charging for these records could be a much needed revenue stream. From my perspective, however, the situation with these records is completely different.
Local, state, and federal governments do not own these records, in my view. They are the custodians of these records that belong to the people of the nation. To charge for access to these records seems completely contrary to the nature of their stewardship. It also puts genealogical research at risk.
The more common it becomes to charge for records, the larger the barrier for those who are just beginning to research. The charges can also have a limiting effect for those who have fixed incomes. This effect of making genealogical research more difficult will be compounded if researchers need to provide credit cards for payments to many different entities. Think about your experience if you are searching in several different records and for each new record set you had to set up a profile and add a credit card to each account. Think about the challenges with tracking all the user names and passwords you will need to log in and pay on each of these sites.
I think it is a terrible idea for local, state, and federal record custodians to charge for access to digital records. I think funding in other ways is much more appropriate. I encourage everyone who is involved in genealogy to speak out with a loud voice anytime an archive begins making money off their records. If we want records to be free and easy to access we will need to speak out with a loud voice anytime a local, state, and federal archive begins charging for records online. Information wants to be free, and in the genealogical world, free information means better conclusions, better collaboration, and more individuals involved in the work.