There's a great story in today's Globe about Jay and DeLene Holbrook, a seventy-something couple from Oxford, Massachusetts who have spent the last 30 year collecting, organizing and microfilming the vital records of every city and town in the Commonwealth. Mr. Holbrook was a historical demographer who began the project as part of an academic assignment and then continued it as a business with his spouse's assistance. They would persuade town clerks, one-by-one, to allow them to borrow their books and then take the books to a commercial microfilming service where the records would be photographed. In return for the loan of the books, the Holbrook's would provide each town with a free copy of that town's microfilm. Recently, the Holbrooks sold their collection to Ancestry.com which has converted the records from microfilm to digital images and has integrated them into the Ancestry database.
While it's true that the original version of these records are (or are supposed to be) freely available to the public for review and research at each town hall, having them indexed and available online as digital images adds tremendously to their value.