The Question, “Who am I?” Sounds so Innocent.
It may come off as the simplest of inquiries, but it’s also a question for the ages. The urge to know feels basic, almost instinctual. It’s a hardwired notion that tickles and intrigues everyone, young and old alike. It’s a question that Ancestry.com attempts to answer millions of times every day.
Just about everyone wants to know where he or she came from. The desire to answer that question can even become a burning need or a haunting desire. Some families have their own historian, a favorite uncle or grandmother who loves recounting tales of times past — but not every family is so lucky.
Ancenstry.com can fill the gap for anyone lacking that ancestry expert. It can also fill in missing links between the old country and the old neighborhood. The question is whether that’s worth a couple hundred dollars per year.
Breaking Down Ancestry.com
Putting a dollar amount on family history is a tough proposition. A little ancestral archaeology can prove to be life-altering for some people. Other folks consider it pretty cool just to know. Placing a value on that range of interest is difficult at best, but Ancestry.com has done it. Their web service suggests that it’s worth anywhere from $16.50 – $29.95 per month to answer that old, universal inquiry.
Ancestry.com claims to be the leading online resource for family histories. Backing that up requires powerful technology, incredible documentation and a user interface that’s attractive and easy to use. Here are four quick facts that demonstrate what the company has achieved:
* Archiving 11 billion historical records
* More than 160 million uploaded photographs, scanned documents and written stories
* An estimated membership topping 2.7 million users
* Hundreds of servers that process approximately 40 million searches every day
Those facts are convincing. But 11 billion records didn’t pop up on the web overnight. The company itself has been around for a generation. More than 15 years have been spent developing their online presence.
A Rich History
Once upon a time, researching family history was an undertaking especially reserved for the wealthy and for those who had nothing but time on their hands. The practice required daunting legwork, incredible amounts of travel and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of patience. Locating just a single census entry could take hours, if not days.
Ancestry.com first set up shop as a publishing company in 1987. They quickly discovered the universal appeal of ancestry research. They found a large audience of family tree enthusiasts, and beyond them stood countless numbers simply curious to learn where they came from.
The company began the arduous task of digitizing content. Stacks upon stacks of records required preservation, scanning and digital recording. Along the way they developed their own patented processes and technologies that led to the launch of Ancestry.com in 1996.
Ancestry.com’s success can be measured by the sheer volume of data they maintain, their impressive subscriber numbers and their financial growth. In 2007 the company’s revenues totaled $166 million. In 2012, they generatedincome approaching $500 million. That’s a different kind of rich history.
Ancestry.com has one terrific come-on. Just about anyone is curious about their father, their father’s mother, their father’s mother’s mother, and so on. Just like getting carried away with web surfing, Ancestry.com always presents one more relative to look up, one more document to review.
The company makes it easy to get started ” maybe a little too easy. They offer a 14-day trial at no charge. The free, two-week offer requires signing up for membership, and Ancestry.com forces users to opt out after the trial period if they don’t want to pay — monthly billing starts automatically unless membership is cancelled.
That sort of automatic billing process is worth noting. Anyone registering with Ancestry.com must be very careful about the level at which they sign. Anyone cancelling the service should make sure they thoroughly complete the cancellation process.
The site offers two levels of membership. Both levels are priced per month, but there’s also a discounted charge for six-month memberships.
* U.S. Discovery
$19.95 per month
$16.50 per month for a 6-month commitment (billed as one payment)
The U.S. Discovery membership grants access to all U.S. records on Ancestry.com. Resources include birth, marriage and death certificates. All census records are also available, detailing addresses, birthplaces, ages, occupations, siblings, maiden names and more.
The Ancestry.com service provides storage for every piece of family history as it’s discovered. Members are invited to upload their own photos and written stories to create the most comprehensive family tree imaginable. The site also urges member interaction — users can discover a like-minded community of support online and, perhaps, relatives they never knew they had.
* World Explorer
$29.95 per month
$24.95 per month for a 6-month commitment (billed as one payment)
This is the super-sized membership on Ancestry.com. World Explorer members receive unlimited access to every scrap of data on the site — at current count, there are billions of records that detail everything from military service to church parishioners.
Ancestry.com archives all sorts of immigration documents from across the globe for World Explorer members. This information includes passenger lists and records of border crossings. The site’s paper trails for the U.K. cover birth, marriage and death records going back to the 16th century. All together, they’ve digitized data from 15 countries outside of the U.S., including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.
Taking Ancestry.com for a Test Drive
It would be hard to imagine that nearly 3 million users have been completely suckered — you can fool all of the people some of the time, etcetera. But nothing beats the experience of seeing it work firsthand. Ancestry.com provides for a bit of tire kicking, so to speak, at least to a limited extent.
The Ancestry.com website is fairly intuitive for anyone comfortable on the Internet; old hands at surfing will find the navigation a snap. There are plenty of links, hints and tips, and everything’s accessed easily. First up is trying to get as far as possible without signing up for anything — a simple entry of an e-mail address does the trick.
All it takes to get the initial ball rolling is a single relative. Merely adding one parent or sibling and a couple of details is all it takes to start building a family history. The site records every profile entry and displays them in an appealing, tree-like layout. The family tree is arranged simply and attractively, in either a vertical or horizontal fashion, and the screen can be zoomed and dragged at will.
As each new profile is added, Ancestry.com servers work behind the scenes to discover more information. Hints can quickly appear as little leaf icons attached to a profile. Clicking on a leaf reveals all kinds of potentially revealing documents. In the case of this test run, the “hint” for one family member brought up 10 ancestry hints:
* Public member trees
* 1930 U.S. Federal Census Record
* 1940 U.S. Federal Census Record
* County birth index
* Two U.S. Public Record indices
* U.S. Social Security Index
* U.S. World War II Army Enlistment records
* State deaths and stillbirth index
* UK incoming passenger list
That’s an intriguing collection, and that’s only for one relative. But that’s as far as Ancestry.com will go. To view any of these documents, and to save any relevant ones, requires registering for membership (with or without a free trial).
Is it worth it?
If a family’s got any kind of traceable paper trail, Ancestry.com can provide some rich discoveries. But some histories fall through the cracks. Sometimes records can be misleading or incorrect altogether — it’s only natural that old, handwritten records contain errors, and plenty of immigrants had their names changed by officials who couldn’t speak their language.
Ancestry.com is a great place to start for anyone beginning a family history. It’s a lot cheaper than hiring a service and, on occasion, can provide some delightful surprises. That’s providing that the crapshoot nature of genealogy is taken into account. It’s always possible that a search can prove inaccurate or come up blank. In the end, the value of undertaking family research is truly relative.