Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Preserving Your Research For Posterity

There was an interesting question posed at Nolichucky Roots this week in the post "Madness Monday: If I Die". Basically the question is - How can you ensure your research out lives you? Maybe not the happiest subject to consider but, after all, we are dealing mostly with people who have died and, sooner or later, we're all going to join them. Genealogists often discuss backing up their computer files so valuable research isn't lost in a computer crash but what about backing up records for the really long term?

This subject has been bugging me more and more lately because I have no long term backup plan. I'm a fanatic about backing up my computer files but what would happen to all those GB's of data if I was gone? Would it be left on a hard drive for years until all of the technology used to create it was completely outdated rendering everything inaccessible? There's a good chance. After all, it was over 20 years after my grandmother died before I took a serious interest in everything she had written down about the family history. If her information had been in computer files instead of on paper would I have been able to access it when I was finally ready?

I didn't become interested in genealogy until well into the computer age so I've never really kept paper records. I have never filled out a single Family Group Sheet or Pedigree Chart by hand and very little of my data is on paper (except for records and other information I've copied during research - much of which has been scanned). What I'm saying is you can't look at my genealogy data without turning on the computer. When I decided to share my research publicly, I decided on a website. My thought process at the time was that (1) more people are searching the Internet than area public and society libraries; (2) I'm not ready to write books; (3) I can add new information as often as I want; and (4) mistakes in my work can be corrected so at least the latest people to find it will get the corrected version. So in 2007 I set up a family history website (McCauley, Lanier, Hankins, Hopkins & Taylor Families) but it won't last forever. It's my own domain on space I pay for so that information will be gone once my credit card is no longer valid.

Even if my research was on a free website, like Rootsweb, what are the chances such a site would remain free or even exist in 10 or 20 or 50 years? It would seem that as long as genealogy remains popular, Ancestry is likely to exist. Should I break down and put everything (sources, notes, pictures, documents and all) in an Ancestry Tree? The thoughts of all my stuff being endlessly attached to the wrong people until it's a scrambled mess with no basis in fact just doesn't seem like the right answer to me.

I recently decided to print out some quick and dirty "books" created from my data base. At least there will be one hard copy of all data, including sources, but that's not a long term solution to this dilemma. Carol at Reflections From the Fence commented on the Nolichucky Roots post saying she donates printed material to major libraries as well as some smaller one. I've always intended to do that at some point - like when I'm "finished" researching and ready to write books - but I'm starting to realize that would likely mean waiting too late. Most research libraries have surname files so contributing to them seems like a great interim measure to preserve the data until it's time to write those books.

The bottom line here seems to be that, even though technology has taken over most of our world, paper housed in both major and local research libraries still looks like the option that gives the highest percentage of probability for long term survival of our research.

I'd love to hear other options and opinions. Leave a comment here or at Nolichucky Roots.


  1. Linda,
    All four of my books that have been done are on file at the Allen County public library in Ft. Wayne Indiana. They offer a policy that I think is awesome! You give them one unbound copy, tell them you want to partake of their copy policy - they'll copy it, hardbound it and return one of the hardbound copies to you, the other to their shelf. Its a winning proposition for everyone.
    With your contact information on the title page you open the door to more contacts on those surnames of interest, your work is preserved, and your family can see a hard copy on your personal shelf. If something should happen to you simply leave instructions in your personal copy telling your family where to find "the rest of the story" in your computer files.
    I've made arrangements for my files & my books in my will and I've made my wishes known to both my children & my husband.
    The threat of my coming back to haunt them if they pitch it all should be enough to make sure they follow thru! :)
    Happy blogging!
    Karen (genealogyframeofmind)

  2. I posed this question on my blog a few months ago. My younger daughter publicly volunteered to take over where I leave off! But still, I have combined paper and computer files and would she know where to begin? It's definitely something we need to consider.

    Karen, I think the threat of haunting is a good idea. Maybe I'll try that....

  3. Karen - Thanks for the reminder about the Allen County book thing. It's one of those things I knew about but had completely forgotten.

    Nancy - So far I haven't had any luck with the younger generation - but I have tried. Maybe I need to give Karen's haunting threat a try too.

  4. I've tried the haunting threat thing. I'm not sure if it will work or not.

    I do agree that for the long term, something on paper is the way to go (or at least one mandatory way to go).

  5. Linda, I had the same realization several months ago. My information, too, is all housed online at a self-hosted site. If something happens to me, then it will all disappear when the current hosting contract expires.

    I've started printing everything and putting it in notebooks for contribution to my local library. This is obviously a stopgap measure until I get around to writing books, but at least it is something.