Friday, April 22, 2011

Online Hint : Plenty of Free Content on Subscription Databases (Part 1)

In addition to Ancestry.com, the country's mostly widely known genealogy website, there are a host of other subscription sites emerging - enough that we would all need a second mortgage on our homes to subscribe to them.

I have to admit that I bit the bullet and subscribed to Ancestry and I've also had subscriptions to Footnote and to New England Ancestors (now American Ancestors).  The three of them together, even with attractive new subscriber offers, totaled over $325.00 annually.  There are several more that I've read about and wonder if they would offer unique content useful to my family history research.  Too much investment for one individual...

There are a couple of ways around some of the costs, however.  First of all, most of the "heavy hitters" offer a free trial period whereby you can sign up using your name, e-mail, and sometimes credit card number, to embark on a 7-14 day free trial of portions of the site.  The credit card number is a risk, so make sure the site is reputable, but usually the only real risk involved is that of forgetting to cancel the subscription after your free trial period is up.  In the case of Ancestry, when that period elapses your card is automatically charged for the subscription, no notice given. 

I'm not knocking free trials.  In fact, it's the best way to find out if you want to make the investment for a subscription.  You can browse the list categories and databases and you can also take some of your favorite ancestral names out for what I call a "litmus test."  Try using some of your less common names (no Smith's or Jones') to avoid getting prematurely frustrated. 

Don't forget to check the public libraries near you.  For example, the Van Buren District Library in Decatur offers free to its patrons at any of its seven locations Ancestry Library Edition.  Also, at the Decatur branch, American Ancestors is available.  Anyone that visits the library may access them at any public computer.  Other libraries in our area offer other databases. 

The thing that many researchers don't realize is that most of these subscription sites have free content.  You are able to make searches and when you review the hit list, you will see some free things sprinkled throughout, allowing you to view the results without a subscription.

Ancestry.com is certainly the biggest example of this.  Simply go to their home page where you will see the free trial information, and along the top are some buttons.  Click on Search which takes you to a search screen entitled "Search for records about your ancestors".  Plug your names into the search boxes (remembering to keep your searches simple), and you will be rewarded with a hit list of databases.  Many of the databases have a picture of a little lock next to them.  Those are the results that you can't view without a subscription.  You will also see some with a little picture of a white page next to them.  Any of those can be viewed for free.  There are dozens of free databases in Ancestry, but to name some of the bigger ones:
  • U.S. 1880 Census Index (no images)
  • 1881 England Census
  • Ontario, Canada, Marriages 1801-1928
  • Quebec Vital Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967
  • WWI Draft Registration Cards
  • U.S. WWII Army Enlistment Records
  • U.S. Naturalization Index, 1791-1992
Simply click on a record of interest, and you will come to a page that reads "View Free Records With a Free Account," where you are prompted to enter your name and e-mail address.  No credit card required. 

Next time, we'll talk about free content on some of the other subscriptions sites such as Footnote, World Vital Records, and American Ancestors.