Cheap and Easy CD-ROMs

A version of this article first appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of Ancestry Magazine

By Mark Howells

The revolution of indexes available on CD-ROMs has been a great boon to the genealogical community. Fingertip access using versatile search facilities to millions of indexed records have made CD-ROMs a standard tool in genealogy research. The reproduction of source materials has became a part of this CD-ROM revolution as well. CD-ROMs containing scanned images of original records are becoming more prevalent. Good examples of this are the scanned U.S. censuses available from Census View ( When scanned images of source records are also indexed and searchable on the same CD-ROM, the results are quite remarkable for researchers. The 1850 Virginia Microfilm Census CD-ROM ( is a example of the integration of images with a searchable index. More such combinations can be expected in the future.

The rapidity with which a CD-ROM index may be searched for individuals, surnames, dates, and more is really quite amazing. Their speed and ease of use adds to their value as a research tool. They are an exciting first step back to the original source material. That point should be stressed again - CD-ROM indexes are a finding aid for further research in the original sources from which they were prepared. The careful researcher does not rely on information from a CD-ROM index alone as evidence for their family history but drills further into the actual records. The unique advantage of CD-ROMs which contain scanned images of original source materials is that they provide the image of the original record itself - much in the same way that a photocopy or microfilm copy of the record does.

The most popular format of CD-ROM will hold 650 megabytes of data. That's the equivalent of about 460 high density floppy disks or 160,000 pages of text. These physically small yet bursting-full storehouses of data make them the ideal media for a genealogist's purposes. But as with every modern marvel, there is always a catch or two. In the case of CD-ROMs for genealogy, the main catch is their price.

Easy, but not cheap

The proliferation of the genealogical CD-ROM has increased in just the past few years. These rapid strides in the availability and diversity of titles has not come without an obvious cost. CD-ROMs for genealogy are expensive to purchase for most individuals. List prices for commercially-available CD-ROMs of previously published genealogy indexes are usually in the $30 to $40 range. To put this in terms all genealogists can relate to, the cost of a single "standard" CD-ROM for genealogy priced at $40 equates to 11 microfilms on short term loan or 250 pieces of microfiche at your local Family History Center. Forty dollars will also buy a year's membership in the National Genealogical Society - ( or a 2 year subscription to Ancestry magazine. Life is so full of trade-offs!

Genealogy CD-ROMs which contain much-sought-after or unique databases can easily be twice the amount for a "standard" title. Internationally-known genealogical resources which previously were only available in print or microform are increasingly becoming available on CD-ROM as well. The National Genealogical Society Quarterly Volumes 1 to 85 on CD-ROM lists for $50 - ( An index for Griffith's Valuation of Ireland can be had for $60 on CD-ROM - The valuable Periodical Source Index (PERSI) from the Allen County Library and available on CD-ROM from sells for $90 - ( Complete census indexes on CD-ROM for single U.S. states are usually over $100.

Why do they cost so much?

The cost of producing a CD-ROM containing a genealogical database breaks into two pieces - development costs and reproduction costs. Development costs vary considerably based copyright licensing fees required for the genealogical content of the CD-ROM, the labor involved in developing the CD-ROM, and any software licensing fees required for the search software used to access the data on the CD-ROM. Reproduction costs run around $1 per disc for 1,000 or more copies. These costs decline with larger volumes of duplication. Final packaging such as the plastic jewel cases and additional printed materials add to the reproduction costs. The underlying cost structure of producing genealogy CD-ROMs plus a margin of profit for the producer and vendor result in the final pricing of these research tools. This makes useful genealogy CD-ROMs for under $20 a rarity. There is, however, a lower-cost selection of CD-ROM genealogy titles available.

Cheap at twice the price

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and their Family History Department were early pioneers in harnessing the power of the personal computer for genealogy. By providing the International Genealogical Index (IGI), the Ancestral File, and the Family History Library Catalog on CD-ROM for use at their worldwide network of Family History Centers, the LDS took an early lead in the use of CD-ROMs for the storage and retrieval of genealogical information.

As the commercial market for genealogy CD-ROMs developed over the last few years, the Family History Department was seemingly "falling behind" in the provisioning of CD-ROMs to the public. New CD-ROM titles were made available at the Family History Centers but with the exception of a few limited-distribution trials, individual researchers could not purchase genealogy CD-ROMs from the Family History Department. This situation has now changed and the results are very impressive.

In April of last year, the Family History Department released three new titles on CD-ROM. These titles are extremely useful as indexes to millions of logically cohesive genealogical records while also being very easy on the pocket book. The first three CD-ROMs were the initial installment of an ongoing series of inexpensive CD-ROMs being planned by the Family History Department. The original three are:

In September of 1998, two additional titles became available in this series of value-priced CD-ROMs.

Note that the titles published in this series are not exclusively related to records of the United States as most commercially-available genealogy CD-ROMs have been. Records from Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are also indexed in the series and the Family History SourceGuide(tm) provides excellent information on non-U.S. research.

All of the above titles are extremely easy to use. Their search features are intuitive and straightforward. The information which these indexes contain includes the necessary citations needed to quickly direct the researcher back to the original source of the information. These inexpensive CD-ROMs are ideal finding aids.

The future

Expected in early 1999 are more additions to this series of inexpensive research tools from the LDS Family History Department. The first discs of the 1880 U.S. census and the 1881 British census sets should be available early in the year. When completed, these two combined titles will index over 80 million individuals from the two separate censuses. These and additional inexpensive CD-ROM titles from the Family History Department will be gratefully received by the genealogy community.

For ordering genealogy CD-ROMs from the Family History Department of the LDS Church, contact:

Church Distribution Center
1999 West 1700 South
Salt Lake City, UT 84104-4233

800-537-5971 [from the U.S. or Canada]
801-240-1126 [international]

FAX orders:

or contact your nearest Family History Center for ordering instructions in your locality.

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Cheap and Easy CD-ROMs
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Updated June 10, 2000

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