First, I'd like to point out that the world is mostly capitalistic. You should expect nothing for free; you aren't entitled to be given anything. If you do have to pay for something it is to help them operate their business so that they can research, archive, and upload that precious information you have gone looking for. Please keep this in mind before you bemoan greedy fat cats and what you can and cannot get for free elsewhere.
With that said:
I'm a big fan of Ancestry.com. I use their site free at the moment, but paid for a year prior and plan to pay for them again later. I just have little time or money to be throwing around right now (like many of you) and had to cut one of my favorite hobbies to a minimum. They have two options, one for just United States information and one for "World" access. I say "World" because they don't have all countries available- it's mostly Europe and sketchy at that. They still have to find the records; then pay for the rights to reproduce them; then pay someone to transcribe them (or through their World Archives project, induce you to volunteer time to transcription). Around $30-40 to get you access, depending on if they are having a sale or something. Of course, it's less if you pay for a bulk year, but it's up to what you can safely budget. Should you pay? I think so. They've got loads to comb through like Censuses, Birth and Death records, Newspapers..... you could spend years on just what they have if you've got patience to do so. But you don't have to. They have a free membership that allows you to input your information and upload data from other sources. They do free search weekends and the like so you can get a taste of what they have to offer without paying (there's even a 14 day trial to start you out). Either way, this is a good site. Plus, it's super easy to save their sources to your tree. (If you don't pay, when you do get to access their sources for free, print them out or save them as you can't view them after the introductory event).
They've bought many of the sites that are out there like Rootsweb (free but .... ignored and a bit mishandled now). They also own Fold3 (used to be Footnotes). This one is all newspapers, military records and naturalisation documents. You have to pay for it and it's about $80 for a year. I've not bothered with this one yet as I've been able to find news articles elsewhere if I search, but have considered adding this one to my spending. I'm interested in a possible hits to the naturalisation records of my great grandmother, but there are a few to try and I've not got enough information to guarantee any are her. Should you pay? There are some documents here you can't get free elsewhere, so if you know what/who you are looking for, I'm sure it can help. If you're taking a blind plunge, it might not be worth $80 to come up empty handed.
Golly, so many sites I use free, Genforum, FamilySearch, Worldgenweb, Progenealogists, etc. Cindi's List is wonderful as the she has looked through a lot of the sites available and has categorised them for easy look up. So you can exhaust several of these before you have to go searching out a paying alternative. Many have some things free and then a paid member site. Should you pay? Not really sure you should. What you have to pay for on most sites is what you have to pay for on the bigger known sites, so why pay twice?
What about a historical society?
Well, this is an iffy one for me. There are several societies out there. They are National, Ethnic, County, or even family specific......... I can't imagine paying for all of them. Some offer free information, some make you pay a membership fee yearly. Some I feel are just making you pay so you can receive a monthly digest from them of "tips" you can find anywhere. So this one's up to you. I've not seen the need to pay for a society yet, but there are some that have documents you can't find elsewhere and they won't share without membership. If you join one, make sure it'll be worth it -if your family helped found Bumtown County, joining their historical society might be worth the effort. However, joining the Scottish Preservation society doesn't help you if your family is strictly Italian; no matter how cool the information is, it's not helpful.
Should I pay someone else to help me?
You can if you want. Here's the thing, there's lots of info that is free if you search hard enough for it. There are people out there who just love to look stuff up and if you post on a forum they read, they'll find that information for you for free. So why should you pay?
- You don't have the time to research it yourself
- You've run into a dead end and need new eyes on the search
- The person in question is a member of a site or society that requires membership and is willing to gather this information for you for a fee
- They can locate/translate a document you can't
Bottom line, if you don't want to pay, don't. There's plenty of free options, but you will work harder for them. But hey, the search is the fun isn't it?