A recent correspondent ended his email to me with the words: At one point I was able to search [my ancestor] out on the Internet for free, that is no longer an easy thing to do anymore and being on a tight pension, I cannot afford to hire people to do the digging for me. I sent one fellow 80 dollars at one point and got little in return.
See my response ...
Your comment about free information on the internet may represent how it feels - but there is a hell of a lot more free information in the internet than there was ten years ago, when this web site was set up. If anything the problem is that there is so much that it is sometimes difficult to find what you want. The other difference is that a lot of additional information has come online which was previously only available if you (or someone acting on your behalf) visited the appropriate archive to view the original manuscript document. While you have to pay to see this information online the cost is trivial compared with the costs of getting at the same information ten years ago - unless you were lucky enough to live close to the relevant archive.
Your complaint about the hazards of paying someone to do research is relevant to the reason why I run a free web site. In 1997 I realised that the internet was starting to be a good place to do family history, and there might be a market to provide a service. I actually got several small contracts (not enough to pay for the cost of the computer, much less other overheads!), and I am sure those that I helped considered that they had good value for money.
If you are providing a genealogy service it can be hard to always ensure that you are seen to provide good value for money. I might get a query from someone on the far side of the world asking about a particular family. Deciding to take on the contract I drive 35 miles (each way) to Hertford to look at a number of possibly relevant but large documents. After a day's work at HALS trawling through page after page of very difficult handwriting I return home and write a letter recording what I have found. The letter lists the documents I search and why I thought they could be relevant, points out that nothing relevant was found, and enclosing a bill for £100 pounds to cover time and expenses. Of course the customer has had "good value for money" because that £100 pounds represents a very significant saving on the costs of flying to England, arranging transport to the records office, hotel room costs, etc., etc. The problem is that the customer never had any intention of coming to England to doing the research themselves and believes they have been charged a King's ransom for nothing. Perhaps if I find nothing I should do the work for free - and recover the costs by overcharging other customers.
On another day I might get a request from someone who has been banging their head against a brick wall for years, have paid genealogists a fortune for "nothing" and desperately offers £500 pounds for real information. I swivel my computer chair, take down a 200 year old book from my library, and within an hour reply with a family tree and the text of family memorials that were in a long demolished church. So how much should I charge them?
Following Lucy's death, which lead to my taking early retirement - in part due to post traumatic stress disorder, I needed to avoid stressful situations - and had a modest pension which meant I did not have to work as long as I was careful. I found helping other people to research their family history a wonderful way to relax - but found the business of trying to evaluate a "fair" charge for my services very stressful. So I ended up giving free advice on a bulletin board until 2001 when this web site was launched. By a cruel and purely coincidental turn of fate, my other daughter, Belinda. accidentally killed herself in hospital within hours of my switching on this site. In the circumstances what was more natural than for me to provide free help - but suggest a donation to a local mental heath charity. It is not a very efficient way of raising money as the current target is £1200 pounds for the year (£460 raised so far) and I probably average 4 hours a day working on the web site. This should be compared with the national minimum wage is over 6 pounds an hour which is what I would be paid for unskilled work, and on top there are expenses - such as the costs of building and maintaining a very large private library of Hertfordshire books to support the work. In fact if I was offering the service commercially I would probably have to charge customers at least 15 pounds an hour and it is not uncommon for me to spend a whole day on a particularly interesting query.
The important thing is that I enjoy myself, and as the service is free I am not committed to produce any answers on any time scale. If the work load gets too heavy I can simply mutter under my breath, put my feet up for a few days and perhaps post a few pre-prepared items to give the impression I am still hard at it. As long as enough people make donations, and the majority of people send me thank you messages (which help to stop me getting depressed) I am satisfied - and this feedback gives me the impression that most people who visit the site are also satisfied.