NARA Records Worth Some Cost

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By Amanda Forson,

After the recent news of the proposed 238 percent increase in costs of Civil War pension records from $37 to $125, many genealogists who deal with American records are “up in arms.”

A few questions emerge from the battle between the cost of one�s heritage and the ever-increasing prices for basic necessities in America. Those necessities include not only the breach between what senior citizens receive through Social Security benefits versus current cost-of-living charges, but on the flip side the government also has to pay for utilities, structures, personnel, and what it takes to run a building. These costs do not include funding special projects like microfilming, digitization, or preservation of the originals, just in case something happens to all the “copies” floating out there.

Average and beginning genealogists have become used to viewing readily-available digital images of scanned or original documents through libraries or other public places for subscription-based services. No one likes to pay for genealogical materials until they find something they deem useful, and then money becomes the medium to their solution. No one wants to pay for food, clothing, shelter, utilities, etc., but these are costs associated with living. What is not seen are the “hidden costs” built into systems of supply and demand in normal living expenses, and in �normal� genealogical expenses. These would be transportation of records, climate, humidity, and light controls, expenses of copying, training of those who work with records, stamps, paper, and the list continues. NARA seems to be trying to alleviate these costs by farming out information to subscription sites with varying content and price ranges.

The question is whether or not the Congressmen in charge of the hearing on finance, understand what those records mean to their constituents. In order to receive records in a timely manner, I hired a local record searcher from the DC area to find three pension records for me. By the time she was done, she had the pensions along with the widow�s pension stacks totaling 318 pages for the six documents. She copied everything, and without the widow’s pensions, I would not be able to prove that the third generation back from 1900 for my mother�s side is related to the fourth.

After reading all 318 pages, I found copies of original marriage certificates of cousins and tales of missing brothers and sisters otherwise unknown. Re-constructing intra-family relationships and personalities began as affidavits for family members recounted bearing false witness by a brother about a widow. Very little information about these families existed previously, according to my knowledge. Further, I found medical genealogy, my current genealogical obsession, since medical examiners testified about direct causes of death for many early ancestors. To my surprise, many of her direct-line ancestor’s causes of death were the same as my mother’s. This makes sense, but I had not considered it as I had little information on the matter previously.

The pensions allow me to prove what happened in the past and to increase my personal life expectancy for the future through changing my personal habits and taking better care of myself than was available to them at the time.

The pension total cost was $125, ironically the same amount that one record would cost if the proposed fee increase occurs. I was happy to pay the cost as the content within the records was unique, or at least I had not found it elsewhere despite searching the Family History Library and various online subscription sites for anything of even remote applicability without fruition. The question here is the cost for what one receives, with emphasis on receiving information that is pertinent to the needs of the researcher.

Were the price consideration $50, would the public complain? Without $125 reference point difference, would people complain about the cost or even suggest gradual cost shifts? Was it worth it for me to have these three corresponding and corroborative records? Yes, and I did not wait for price changes to affect my decision. Was it worth $125? I paid that now so as to defray spending $750 in the future.

The records are important to the nation, but for the individual, they are priceless. Contact those who make decisions in Congress. If unsure, Google your state and House of Representatives or Dick Eastman’s links to those who are directly on the subcommittee on finance. Only when people take action will costs go down or “normalize.” The value is inherent; the price is not.

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