NOTE: This article contains personal opinions.
I recently read about a new book that documents all the readable tombstones in a cemetery and provides a map of that cemetery. The single copy of this hand-made book is available at a public library near the cemetery that was documented. That effort results in a valuable resource for anyone researching ancestry in the area IF THEY CAN TRAVEL TO VIEW THE BOOK. For some descendants, that may require travel of thousands of miles.
Of course, thinking about the publication of a single book immediately begs the question, "What about those of us who are unable to travel to a specific library that might be thousands of miles away?" I will suggest it is time to change everyone's thinking about publishing.
The "old mentality" always has been to publish a book in order to preserve information and to make that information available to everyone. Of course, this also implies that the information really is available only to everyone who is able to travel to the location of the book or is able to purchase a copy of the book.
In reality, that's not a very good solution. Economic factors often prevent people from finding the information they seek. Many of us cannot travel to a library that is thousands of miles away. Even the purchase of a copy is difficult. You first have to find if a copy is available for sale. Often, the answer is "no." Next, if you are lucky enough to find copies for sale, you then have to pay for the book plus whatever shipping charges are required. For many of us, it isn't practical to pay $25 or $50 or more for every book that we would like to read, especially if we only need a paragraph or two. Even worse, many of us cannot pay hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars in travel expenses to visit various local libraries and repositories to view books and records of interest.
In this day and age, there is a better solution. That solution involves technology.
I will suggest that all books of interest to genealogists, historians, and others with an interest in the books' contents should be published electronically and copies should be placed online. There are thousands of web sites that will gladly host the books.
These books generally are labors of love where the authors typically have no expectations of generating large profits. In a few cases, the books will be available free of charge. However, I would think it appropriate to pay the author a modest fee to help reimburse expenses and to encourage further production of future books of valuable records. These electronic books could either be placed on a public site with free access or be published on any of dozens of web sites that charge a small fee for access, such as Lulu.com. Books can be published as PDF files or as HTML or even as DOC or RTF files, as the author desires. Once the book is written, publishing online requires only a few additional minutes.
Of course, having the book visible to Google and other search engines greatly increases the chances of someone being able to find valued information whenever they wish.
A book of cemetery records is a perfect example. I'd gladly pay $3 or $4 to access an electronic copy of a book online when I want to obtain a paragraph or two of information. However, I probably will be reluctant to pay $20 or more for a printed copy of the same book. After all, I will only use the book for a few minutes.
My guess is that someone who places a book of cemetery records online on Lulu.com and charges $3 for access will probably make a lot more money than someone who charges $20 for a printed copy of the same book. Many people will pay $3 while they won't pay $20. Which produces more profit: selling 50 copies at $20 each or 5,000 copies at $3 each? The authors also will provide a better service to distant genealogists who seek the information. I also suspect the same will be true of tax lists, school records, and other transcriptions of interest to genealogists and historians.
Placing the book online provides immediate, low-cost access to many more people than those who will ever see the book that is sitting on a shelf at a local library. In addition, multiple backup copies can easily be stored in multiple locations, guaranteeing availability of the book for generations, regardless of fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or burst water pipes.
To be sure, there are some genealogists who do not use computers and therefore would seemingly be denied access. However, I will suggest that the number of non-computer-using genealogists is decreasing rapidly. Besides, without a computer, how would they ever learn about the printed book?
The solution is simple: even non-computer-using genealogists can ask a computer-using friend or relative to order the book for them. I doubt if there is any genealogist who neither uses a computer nor knows someone with a computer.
In today's world, "using a computer" is the same thing as saying "is connected online on the Internet."
Finally, I would suggest it is still appropriate to print one copy of the book and donate it to one library in the same way as before. That's the way it has always been done for non-computer-owning genealogists, and it seems trivial to continue the practice. Let's continue to publish in the old-fashioned method whenever possible by printing and placing a printed book on a shelf. All I am suggesting is an ADDITIONAL method of distributing the books for the ever-growing majority of genealogists who use computers.
Are you planning on compiling records? Is your local society involved in a project to transcribe important information and to make it available to others? If so, I hope that the information becomes available to everyone easily and at low cost. Luckily, this is easy to do in today's world. In fact, publishing online is easier than publishing on paper.
The next time a person or a society publishes a book of transcribed records, please ask them a question: “Why isn't it online?”
Let's move into the twenty-first century.