In all my years of chasing clues to my family’s history, I’ve tried to keep a close eye on expenses. I grant you, it is sometimes necessary to fork over a few dollars for that critical document, or to join an organization with emphasis on your research area. Or even to save up for a trip to the home turf. But still … this enthusiasm of ours does not have to break the bank.
I did tentatively accept a subscription to a major for-profit genealogy firm once, but trying to cancel at the end of my “trial” period was a real headache (no phone number! no address!). Sometimes membership offers are so confusing you think you’re getting one “tier” of records and really you’re into more money for another group you don’t even need. Then too, some outfits appear on the horizon for a few years (or months) and then disappear, leaving their members in the lurch, completely out of luck or tacked onto the subscriber list of some other irrelevant service.
By now the big players are pretty well established, and if you are so inclined, fee-based memberships can provide quick and easy access to certain types of documents. (As well as some rather questionable “family trees.”) On the other hand, there are many free and low-cost ways to find much of what you are seeking.
I live in a California county with a library system that provides home access to Heritage Quest for its card-carrying patrons. That means indexes and images for many (though not all) US census records, a way to search over 28,000 family and local histories, access to the PERSI index to articles in many genealogical publications, and more. On site at any of the library branches, I can also log onto the “Library Edition” of Ancestry.
Another resource I use almost daily is the FamilySearch website, that well-known Mormon entity. Their religious emphasis on posthumous baptism has inspired the creation of the world’s largest collection of genealogical materials. And their Family History Library in Salt Lake City is a genealogist’s dream -- open to all, no strings, no subtle pressures or proselytizing. They are presently underway on a mammoth project to place online their millions (literally) of microfilmed records from all over the world. With the help of an army of trained and supervised volunteers, they are making new material available over the Internet just about every day -- and their indexing is of the highest quality.
One of the features that really helps me is their indexing of virtually all census records, in a “fuzzy” way that brings up “sound-alike” surnames -- something you don’t get with Heritage Quest. So I am always sure to check both indexes when a family member is eluding me.
I strongly suggest joining genealogical and/or historical societies in the states or counties of interest, too. That will often put you in touch with individuals who can help with your specific issue. Another place to look is local public libraries in your research area. They often have local history collections and may have old newspapers in their holdings. Go online first, and see what their catalog shows. Then send a note or email to the reference department. I’ve had good results from queries about old obituaries, land records, and other local information. Costs are usually quite low, or non-existent (but send them something anyway! They need it!).
There are far too may free and low-cost sites to name here, but I’d like to remind you of one more: Find a Grave. In their words, it is “a resource for finding the final resting place of family, friends, and ‘famous’ individuals. With millions of names and photos, it is an invaluable tool for the genealogist and family history buff.” I’ve had considerable luck finding names there and even photos of family gravestones, and after registering (free) was able to provide additional information and an image for one Civil War solder’s resting place.
So the next time someone tells you she thinks "doing genealogy" is too expensive, just smile -- the same way you do when people say their family history is "complete."