05 October 2012

Repository in Review- Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com is one of my favorite sites. I often compare the quality of another site against it..... so why wasn't it the first "Repository in Review"? Quite simply, I talk about it so much I didn't want to bore you with it. On the other hand, I do use it daily and you may not be familiar with it, so it is unfair to never review the resource. Besides, even if you use it, you may not know all that is available to you. So for the third installment of my ongoing review series, we're going to get the low-down on Ancestry.com.

The Features and Benefits

Ancestry.com is the largest online family history resource. Starting as a publishing company in 1983, they began to digitise records for online use in 1996. The Card Catalog lists 30, 994 collections that cover 10 billion records. While most are English or German language documents, there are also French, Italian, Swedish and Spanish documents. The U.S. and Europe are the most represented areas, but there are records available for Asia, South America, Mexico, Australia, Canada and Africa. In their Card Catalog you will now find web links to other genealogy sites. Ancestry may own Fold3.com, but it is a separate website with a separate database collection and membership fees. They will also link you to websites they do not own (and may have made an index without specifically partnering with that website). Why are they linking you to other websites? Because no one site has everything, not even Ancestry. I have seen a great number of people complain about this link to other websites. They don't want to use those other websites. If you don't, just ignore those hints. Go ahead and cripple your research right off the bat. Or you can be honest with yourself and admit you'll need more than one repository for your research.

On top of records, they have their Learning Center that includes a Wiki, forums where researchers inquire and connect with each other, Facebook page for updates and socialisation, and YouTube channel full of specific lesson plans and recordings of their interactive Q&A sessions. All of this is provided for free to any registered member. Regardless of whether you pay or not, you can build a tree of your own and upload any photos or information in your possession. If you pay for a while but let your membership lapse, your tree is still available. I often have to let my membership slide for a while and use that off time to add information I've gathered from relatives, other websites, and offline sources.

Some points out of the Terms and Conditions (red indicates direct quote from the T&C):
  • You may access the Website, use the graphics, information, data, editorial and other Content only for personal or professional family history research, and download Content only as search results relevant to that research. The Content may be downloaded onto mobile devices or desktop through the use of authorized Ancestry software. When downloaded, the Content remains subject to the limited use license contained in this Agreement. When I reviewed NewspaperArchive, I pointed out that professional use wasn't allowed. In this paragraph, Ancestry is giving you permission to use the site for professional purposes, as long as you continue to follow the guidelines of the site. That means you still have to follow copyright rules, so no publishing photos to a site or book (or final report to a client) without obtaining license to do so.
  • Except for Web Records, which are governed by the third parties that host the records, all Content is owned, licensed to and/or copyrighted by Ancestry and may be used only in accordance with this limited use license. The Website is protected by copyright as a collective work and/or compilation, pursuant to U.S. copyright laws, international conventions, and other copyright laws. What this means is that the links to other websites (i.e. Find a Grave) are subject to the terms of use and copyrights of their original website. (You can't copy photos from Find a Grave and distribute them on Ancestry.com without permission of and credit to the photographer- hence Ancestry providing a weblink instead of a photo or image of the website itself). Whatever items you upload that you own (a photo of the family you yourself took, an oral history you record in the story section, etc.) are licensed to Ancestry.com without changing ownership or copyright transference.
  • According to the Rules of Conduct, you cannot Reproduce, copy or sell any portion of Ancestry or Ancestry database contents, or systematically download contents and data of the Ancestry database to make or populate another database or for any other purpose. This kind of put me in the mind of a discussion I had with someone recently that had started a family website and wanted to take the images from Ancestry.com's databases and upload them to the new website. Nope, can't do it. You can link to the record. You can cite them as a source. You can download a copy to hold in your computer. But you can't copy a database in whole or in part for the purposes of distributing with other people.
  • For User Provided Content, Ancestry is merely hosting and providing access. We cannot accept any liability with regard to such material (including with respect to its accuracy). In other words, family member trees aren't gospel and shouldn't be used as facts. Ancestry.com doesn't police those trees and won't change anything found there no matter how much you know it's wrong. The only time they get involved is when someone makes an obscene tree or something to intentionally malign a person.
  • The decision to upload information to the Website is your responsibility and you should only submit content that belongs to you or that will not violate the rights of others. Be aware that content belongs to the creator of that content and you should not reproduce or submit anything without permission of the owner. This one trips a lot of people up. A picture of your great grandmother taken by a photographer is owned by the photographer or the studio that employed him, not you. Even if there are 100 copies in 100 people's hands, the photographer owns the copyright on each and every photo. By submitting User Provided Content to Ancestry, you grant Ancestry, its parent company and all of its affiliates, a transferable license to use, host, sublicense and distribute your submission to the extent and in the form or context we deem appropriate on or through any media or medium and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed or discovered. This basically just covers Ancestry's tail and says they have the right to have your photos and stories on a public tree in their search feature and on their servers. It doesn't mean Ancestry owns your items, but it does mean that their sister sites like Rootsweb and Mundia can also distribute your information without paying you to do so. It also covers technology changes (if the next big invention is a straight to brain interface, they don't have to ask for your permission for your items to go from the public website to the public brain wave). With that all said, if you own a copyright on something and someone obtains a copy of it without your permission, you can contact Ancestry's copyright department and they'll have it removed. You have to prove you own the rights to the work (and again, pictures of your grandmother as a baby aren't owned by you in any way).
  • All subscriptions are automatically renewing with the exception of gift subscriptions and pay-per view. This means that once you become a subscribing member, your subscription will be automatically renewed and your billing choice will be charged based on the subscription program (semiannually, quarterly, monthly, etc.) you have chosen unless you opt out or cancel by following the instructions in this Agreement. Except in the case of monthly subscriptions, you will be notified via e-mail before your subscription ends and asked to correct any information which has changed and whether you wish to "opt out" of your renewal. The renewal of the subscription takes place subject to the terms in force on the date of renewal. That's right, another automatic renewal site. And they send you a reminder email for all but the monthly subscriptions (which should renew at the same time every month so I can see why they don't remind you).

Dollars and Sense

There are two levels available: U.S. and World. Now, this is coming at it from the U.S. (which I am) and admittedly if you live in another country it'll be your area and World, so probably the better way to say it would be Local and World....... either way, I'm dealing with it as a U.S. subscriber, and as I'm about to talk price, will just clarify that this is the subs available for U.S. residents. There are three price options to each level: monthly, 6 month and yearly. For the U.S. records only, it's $22.95 per month, $77 for the 6 month option, $155 for the yearly. (The 6 month and yearly make it about $12.95 per month, but are billed all at once, so be ready for that!). The all-access World subscription is $34.95 per month, $149 for 6 months, and $299 for a year. (The 6 month and yearly work out to $24.95 per month, again billed at the total price at one time).

From the T&C: Opting Out of Renewal. You may opt out of renewing your subscription by calling Ancestry at 1-800-262-3787 or by logging into your My Account page on the Website at least two days before the renewal date. If you do not let us know that you want to terminate your subscription at least two days prior to the end of the current subscription period the payment for the renewal period of the subscription will be made. So you have 2 days before your renewal date to cancel your subscription (AND you must cancel before 5p.m. Mountain Time!). That means that if my subscription ends on the 19th, I have until 5 p.m. Mountain Time on the 17th to cancel my subscription. Again, they give an online option, but just call them as it goes easier when you have a real person (and then someone to blame if they mess up your cancellation). Also of note: if you have a subscription longer than the monthly sub, you can get a refund as long as you cancel within the first 30 days. Renewals must be cancelled within 7 days. Month subscriptions receive no refund, but you have access to the website until your month expires. In fact, any subscription that they are unable to refund continues to allow access until the subscription runs out, so don't wait until the last minute to cancel your subscription. Take care of it early enough to ensure it's done and then use it up.

When searching the Card Catalog, you can narrow the field to free databases by searching for the keyword "free". When I searched free, I got a list of 728 free databases that can be searched by anyone at anytime. You will still need to make a user name and password, but you don't need to log a credit card or participate in the 14-day trial to get these records. Now, that includes 2 family tree databases that are about as useful as warm dog turds most of the time, so really you're at about 726 databases. Still an impressive number. Also keep these databases in mind when comparing with other sites. These are usually publicly available databases that no one is (or should) charge for. Others are part of Ancestry's World Archives Project and have been made available by Ancestry using volunteer transcriptionists. Also note that these are usually only an index and that to see other data on the record you usually need to pay for a copy or the more detailed database.

My Two Cents

You can't ignore the numbers:
  • 2 million paying subscribers- 2 million people are so happy with the service that they choose to hand over their hard-earned money to Ancestry. Since that only counts the paying members, imagine how many more are using just the free side of the service. That speaks volumes (at least to me) about the quality and quantity of what's to be found on this site. Others may say it's because they have a near monopoly, but I can't help but think of FamilySearch and their impressive collection both on and offline (which I'll cover soon in another review).
  • 10 billion records and counting- this is where that near monopoly thing comes into play. I don't know if it's a good or bad thing for the community as a whole, but for me I count it as a good thing. One place to start, compile and keep my research? Yes, please. With it being centralised for U.S. and Europe ancestry, however, there are glaring holes to be sure. On the other hand, what they don't have is usually not online or held by websites specific to a database, so it's certainly a place to start for just about everyone.
  • 82¢ a day- Full site access is less than $1 a day for a full year. Heck, even if you do a month subscription for February (the shortest month), it's $1.25 a day for full access. You may not need full access. Maybe a simple U.S. (or local) subscription will do for a while. For what's available vs price to view, this is a rather cheap subscription. (Here's another way to look at it, how many records per dollar of a year's subscription: NewspaperArchives has 1,666,667 records per dollar, Fold3 has 1,175,735, and Ancestry has 33,444,816. While you will never need all of them, that's a hell of a lot of potential or "bang for your buck").
There is a 14 day trial. Use it. Even if you find the records useless, the ability to build an online tree and use their free databases and forums make up for that lack. There is a great potential for connecting to relatives who are also researching your lines. Of course, the records are the meat and potatoes of the site and most people will never get their fill. Don't go happily clicking away on all the hints that pop up though. They are just hints and you need to find out if they are facts. That requires critical thought and time. If you look at the family trees, consider any tree without records as suspect and only add what you already know to be true. If there are sources, review them to ensure the member hasn't made a mistake and led you down the garden path. If you have a recent immigrant or know quite a bit about your ancestors on this side of the ocean, go ahead and pay for full World access. If you are just starting out, don't bother with World, just get U.S. (or local) for the time being.

And remember, it's only one tool in your toolkit. You can let your membership lapse and still have access to your tree. I have a specific budget for websites. If I need a different site and I'm tired of Ancestry (I can't really say done, I'm never done), then I'll switch off one and pick up the other. I cite the other websites on my tree on Ancestry to keep my research together as well as to give hints of other work available for people who are connected to my tree. I'm proud to say that every member in my tree has at least one documented source proving they exist. It bothers me when a tree has 300,000 people and no sources. I wonder how they know they aren't wrong or duplicated. And to be honest, it's usually both. One last note on member trees: I've covered private vs public trees before. What I want you to take away today is that how and why other people research is their own business. If you wish to share your information, do so. If your information is taken by someone with a private tree, message them to welcome them to your family. If they respond kindly, you have a new friend. If they respond rudely or not at all, what have you really lost? Let them be and focus on your own work.

See you next week,

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