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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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How to Save $$$ on Genealogy Records

image of jar of coins with sprout coming out of it (money to grow your family tree)

Today I want to look at some places to get free or cheap access to records and also highlight some techniques to use if you have to hire someone to get records for you.

If you dont' know why genealogy records cost money, check-out this post on our sister blog. Understanding the expenses involved can actually help you do better genealogy.

In part 2, I'll talk about budgeting as part of your research planning.

How to save money on genealogy research

How/Where to Access Free or Cheap Records

  • Your local library.

    If they don't have a genealogy room with records related to your interests, they may offer free access to paid subscription websites. (Remember FamilySearch.org is free, use it from home if you haven't been!)

    Some library systems offer access to subscription sites like Ancestry Library Edition at any branch. Others, you may have to use computers in a specific branch or room. If you need help, you should see if your library system has one or more areas dedicated to genealogy. Librarians have to wear a lot of hats so most won't be able to help you with genealogy, or even the basics of using a website, unless they've been trained expressly to help with genealogy.

    Take some time at home to check out any free content or how-to information before heading out to your local library.

    Additionally, there are some sites you may be able to log-in to from home with your library card. Some, you will never get at-home access (such as Ancestry Library Edition). You can figure this out from your library system's website so you prioritize what to use at the library.

  • Your local library, use Inter-Library Loan (ILL).

    There are a few libraries that loan significant genealogical material although most keep "reference collections" which don't circulate. The Library of Virginia loans their microfilm via ILL. Ask your librarian for more information, he/she may refer you to a different branch where you can get the best assistance.

  • Your local Family History Center/FamilySearch Center/FamilySearch Affiliate.

    Once upon a time, you ordered microfilm to your local FHC. Today, microfilm is no longer loaned as it is being digitized. Not only is this faster and free, now many libraries (whether the "local" library, historical society, genealogy society, etc.) are able to be FamilySearch Affiliate libraries where you can access digital records you can't access from home.
    As with subscription sites, you may have access at any library branch but that doesn't mean every librarian (in a multi-branch system) can help you with how to use the FamilySearch website.

    FamilySearch is 100% free so start by learning how to use it from home. See what you can access from home and what you will need to access at a Center or Affiliate library.

    FYI: All microfilm rolls have been digitized that are supposed to be digitized at this time but the digital microfilm may still be in processing and not available online, yet. Other microfilm may not be digitized due to contractual issues with the owners of the original records. These records you will need to access in another way.

  • Other public libraries.

    See what the library local to your ancestors' residence has available to order. This varies widely but is absolutely worth checking.

  • "Local" libraries that aren't "your" library.

    If a library in an adjacent county (or whatever jurisdiction is appropriate) offers services just to their patrons, see if you can pay a fee to become a patron. I've seen this option in county libraries and university libraries. This is usually dramatically less than an annual subscription cost and may give you access to multiple subscription sites for free.

    Plan ahead for an option like this by doing your homework. Even if a library is a day trip, one visit might be worth the cost if you can do enough research in that one day. Remember to do anything you can from home to maximize your visit (going through security and registering is usually the most time-consuming and many locations provide some type of option to speed this up whether it's pre-registering online or simply filling out the registration form you printed at home).

  • Society libraries.

    This could be genealogical, historical, or any other type of society. For your local societies, they may offer services your local library doesn't. You should also check societies for your ancestral locations. This last item also applies to genealogy/historical societies that might offer research services even if they don't have a library. Some societies offer genealogical research at an hourly rate at the local courthouse or local public library.

  • Batch your research.

    If you plan ahead and keep yourself organized, you can create batches of records you need. You can batch these in various ways. Personally, I like to save up research to justify a research trip. This may or may not be in your budget but I always like to look at the records myself, if possible. You might also batch records to order microfilm or ILL materials. This is the most budget-conscious way to do this so you don't end up ordering the same material again.

All of the above suggestions were written before the pandemic. In-person access will vary wildly for now but this can also open up new options. Some locations now offer look-up services where they previously required you to visit. If the library isn't local, this can be a huge benefit for you.

Additionally, many libraries have prioritized digitization of records so on-site access isn't as necessary. Just yesterday I discovered a local paper that I had never had online access to is now OCRed via the local library. This isn't a perfect solution but it's faster than reading microfilm which was the only option I previously had!

Also, realize different parts of the country are dealing with the pandemic in very different ways. Don't assume the situation that applies to where you live applies to a library near where your ancestors are from. Take some time to see what options are.

You may live somewhere where many locations are open for in-person visits. The library for your ancestor's location might not be. Instead of in-person visits, maybe libraries will scan copies of records for you (if patrons aren't visiting, they have to do something to keep their jobs so go ahead and give them some job security!).

The opposite may also be true if you live somewhere with very limited in-person access. A non-local location with ancestral records may be open. If you can't travel, consider hiring someone local to get records for you (see the next section).

Budget Tips for "Hiring"

  • Hire a professional.

    Some professional genealogists will take jobs copying records for less than they would charge to do full research. I used to do this when I lived outside of Washington, D.C. Some of my services were cheaper than what it cost to order the record from the National Archives.Not every genealogist does this; it's not always financially profitable (or even reasonable) for them.

    You can search for a genealogist in an area on the Association of Professional Genealogists Directory. I have a video on my research services blog to show you how to use the APG Directory.

  • Batching When Hiring.

    You may want or need to batch records if you're going to hire a professional. If you need simple records that are indexed, you may need to request multiple records to meet a minimum (usually a minimum number of hours of research).
    Note that you usually are not allowed to do batch requests when requesting copies from government-run repositories. Sometimes they offer hourly research just like hiring an independent researcher but you may be limited by a maximum number of "requests," instead.

Genealogy is not free and after you look back at years of research, it's not really cheap. But it is possible to break up the costs and use techniques to get the most bang for your buck. If you really want to discover your family history, I can assure you, it's money well spent.

Next week I'll look at actually budgeting within your research planning. I'll tell you now, I'm cheap. My problem is not over-spending on my personal research, it's under-spending. Considering a budget for a personal project (just like I do for my clients) helps me determine the best use of my money and usually results in much faster results than if I just "wing-it." Whether you over- or under-spend, budgeting is an important part of research planning.

How to save money on genealogy. Cheap genealogy records. | The Occasional Genealogist