Return to previous page    Homepage    Members Area    Rootsweb

Boniface Internet Group Disclaimer

I or any member of the group do not make any claim to the accuracy of the
information contained on this site. We provide it in the interest of
fellow genealogists. I and the group strongly urge you to check original
records where possible to verify any information.

Steve Everitt &
Boniface Internet Group

Something Think About Reprinted From Missing Links: RootsWeb's Genealogy Journal, Vol. 4, No. 38, 15 September 1999. RootsWeb: FREE LUNCH IN CYBERSPACE -- WHO PAYS? A Cautionary Note for Genealogists by Stuart Nixon - No one reading this needs to be told that the Internet is changing the pursuit of genealogy in exciting new ways. Who can resist the opportunity to access databases, contact other researchers, exchange information, and publish findings in a short period of time, at little or no cost, without leaving home? Like all new technology, the Internet can be a mixed blessing. For genealogists, I see some problems developing that could have long-term implications. For example, the Internet is creating what I call a new psychology of entitlement. Access to the Internet may not be free, but once you log on, there is a sense that you have entered a toy store where all the toys are either free or heavily discounted. Genealogists are coming to the Net with the expectation that with sufficient time to browse, they can find virtually anything they want, without the inconvenience or expense of writing letters, making long-distance phone calls, visiting courthouses, reading microfilms, buying books, etc. In other words, the Internet seemingly delivers one-stop shopping at give-away prices. Everybody knows that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is, but the Internet appears to be an exception. There is, in fact, an enormous amount of information that's free for the taking, or almost so, in cyberspace. So what's the problem? The problem is that even the Internet can't get around common sense. Common sense tells us there is no substitute for careful, methodical, grass-roots research, the kind any genealogist has to do to construct an accurate family history. Information on the Internet may be a pointer to truth, but rarely is it proof. In other words, the Internet is not a source of information; the information originated someplace else. You still need to go behind the Internet to verify the information. You still need to consult the source. Common sense also tells us that technology costs money. Sooner or later, directly or indirectly, somebody will have to pay for all those databases, bulletin boards, mailing lists, chat rooms, etc. out there on the Web. In most situations, that somebody is going to be the user of the information, not the provider. If you think I'm wrong about this, keep in mind that the true cost of a product or service is not always obvious. It is possible to pay for something in a coinage other than money. In the case of genealogical records, somebody has to organize, compile, or abstract those records before they can be put on the Internet. If the records are public -- that is, if they were created by a public agency -- the public, by law, has a right to see them (with some exceptions), but not necessarily on the Internet. If the agency in question puts the records on the Internet, that is a public service, not the fulfillment of an obligation. In other words, we as researchers are not "entitled" to view public records on the Internet, however convenient (and cheap) that may be. We are not "entitled" to view any kind of records on the Internet. The Internet is simply a new means of communication that lends itself very handily to the needs of genealogists. It does not create entitlements that did not previously exist. An example of this is the question of whether a person has the right to look up information in a book and post that information on the Internet for the benefit of others. On the face of it, this seems reasonable enough. If a person is willing to do lookups for other people, why not? The answer depends on what information we are talking about. Most books, including those published by nonprofit organizations, are copyrighted. The contents of the book are protected against republication. Generally speaking, if you choose to share a small amount of information from a copyrighted book with another person, either verbally or in private correspondence, you are free to do so under the concept of "fair use" of the material. But if you start cutting and pasting, photocopying, or otherwise transmitting entire paragraphs or pages from the book, you are no longer making fair use of the material, you are now republishing it. That's why most copyright notices say something to the effect that "no portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author or publisher." The Internet is effectively a giant copy machine. When you post information on the Web, you are reproducing it. Consequently, copyright law still applies. The Internet does not magically redefine the concept of "fair use" to include detailed lookups, quotes, extracts, etc. If someone gets on the Internet and asks whether certain information appears in a copyrighted book, you are free to respond by confirming that the book contains the information in question (with the page number or full citation, if you wish), but beyond that you can only advise the person to buy the book or consult it in a library and do his or her own research. If that seems an unreasonable restriction, consider the alternatives. If a person creates, collects, edits, or otherwise prepares material for publication, that effort usually constitutes original work protected by copyright. The publisher recovers the cost of the work from sales of the book. Even if the author or compiler does the work as a "labor of love" for a nonprofit organization (such as a genealogical or historical society), the person does so to benefit the organization, which therefore copyrights the book to protect its investment. Obviously, no publishing house or nonprofit group can continue to underwrite publishing projects if the genealogical community feels free to republish those books in whole or in part on the Internet. Researchers, therefore, need to recognize that misuse of the Internet in the name of "fair use" represents a real threat to all of us who look forward to a continuing flow of information into the marketplace. There are a lot of valuable data out there (such as cemetery and church records) that do not fall in the public domain. Another Internet-related problem with consequences for genealogists is the devaluation of personal service. One of the appeals of the Internet is that you don't have to write a letter, attend a class, go to a library, shop at a store, wait on hold on the telephone, or put up with any other inconvenience or special cost to access information or order products relevant to your research. In other words, the Internet enables you to bypass a lot of people to get what you want. But bypassing people runs the risk of creating what I call an environment of diminishing expertise -- that is, an environment where there are fewer and fewer knowledgeable people to consult if you suddenly discover that the Internet doesn't answer all your questions. Yes, I realize there are various genealogical Web sites where you can "talk" to specialists. But chat rooms and e-mail are no substitute for getting help with certain genealogical problems or issues, such as selecting the best resource for a particular task or identifying resources you might not know about if somebody didn't tell you. That's when personal service becomes important. But personal service is going out of fashion, due in part to the influence of the Internet. Look, for example, at the mortality rates for small bookstores these days. Small bookstores are going out of business in record numbers because consumers are increasingly trading off personal service at "Mom and Pop" stores for deep discounts on the Internet or stacks of best-sellers at chain stores. For genealogists, this trend is not great news. I speak from personal experience. One incident will illustrate the point. Last February, a woman posted a message on RootsWeb recommending a book about Britain. She had made what she thought was an important discovery. Actually, the book has been in print for 10 years, but it is not a genealogical book, so you would not be inclined (at least for genealogical reasons) to pick it up if you saw it in a library or a bookstore. Yet people like myself who are professionally involved in genealogy have been recommending and "hand-selling" this book for a long time to people we know who are researching immigrant groups discussed in the book. That's part of our job: to act as a broker of information for our clients or customers. Devaluation of personal service leads to another problem: an increase in consumer disloyalty. At the same time that the Internet is creating an environment of diminishing expertise, it is also encouraging consumers to shop price, not product. That means you can't expect merchants on the Web (or, for that matter, in the superstores) to know exactly "what's in the box" or to help you make the right choice for your needs among a large array of items. Consequently, shoppers are still seeking out small businesses for advice on products, but those shoppers are then buying on the Web (or at a superstore) instead of buying from the dealer who helped them. Obviously, this process can't go on very long before shopkeepers have to stop dispensing free advice or, worse yet, have to shut their doors. So let's be candid about the way the marketplace works: as consumers, we don't vote with our mouths, we vote with our wallets. Therefore, I offer this friendly reminder: Loyalty is not an act of charity; it is an investment in access to expertise. If your local, independent drug store (or hardware store, or bookstore, etc.) is willing to take 10 or 15 minutes assisting you, the store probably cannot afford to give you the same rock-bottom prices advertised by a store where the clerk (if you can find one) does not know the merchandise. In the age of the Internet, we still need to reward people who care about their trade. This lesson comes home to me almost any time I get in a discussion about genealogical software. Genealogical software is being peddled on the Internet largely as a "throw-away" item. That is, vendors are pricing most of the programs so low, you won't feel bad if you end up throwing the product away if you don't like it. But throw-away prices can be deceptive; typing data into a program you purchased mainly because it was a bargain is not necessarily the best use of your time. And we all know that time is money. Likewise, companies that sell products at cheap prices may not be inclined to throw a lot of dollars at after-sale support. Which brings us back to the question of personal service: how important is personal service for genealogists who welcome the availability of "high tech" research tools but who also want to make informed choices among many ever-changing options? Taking the longer view of the Internet, perhaps all of us as family historians need to remember that free lunches can sometimes get very expensive. [Stuart Nixon is proprietor of Hearthstone Bookshop in Alexandria, Virginia , a store that specializes in genealogy and related subjects.] * * * * * Written by Stuart Nixon,, Previously published by Julia M. Case and Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG, Missing Links: RootsWeb's Genealogy Journal, Vol. 4, No. 38, 15 September 1999. RootsWeb: * * * * *

Copyright 2002
Boniface Internet Group