Future-proof Your Family History: How to Make Sure Your Genealogy Research Outlives You

Future-proof Your Family History: How to Make Sure Your Genealogy Research Outlives You

As a genealogist, you invest countless hours and immeasurable effort in documenting and preserving your family history to ensure that the stories of your ancestors live on. But what happens when your own time comes? How can you be sure that all the information you’ve worked so hard to curate will be transferred intact to the next generation after you’re gone?

This is an important question that we don’t often talk about. No one likes to think about their own death. But just like in other areas of life where we plan for a future without us — drafting a will, purchasing life insurance, appointing a godparent for a child — we need to think about it if we want our family history research to serve its ultimate purpose.

We recently hosted a Facebook Live session with Thomas Macentee on this very topic. Thomas is an expert in the field of genealogy technology and one of our regular guest lecturers. You can watch the full video here, but in this post, we wanted to provide a summary of the important points Thomas made and the excellent tips and advice he provided in this session.

You need a plan

Thomas began his session by pointing out that we have little control over what happens to our possessions, both physical and digital, after we’re gone. The best we can do is make our wishes clear to the people who are most likely to be handling our affairs, and make it easy for them to carry out those wishes.

We also need to be sure that whatever technology we’re using to preserve the information will stand the test of time. Each form of technology has strengths and weaknesses. Photographs and paper documents can get damaged or faded; memory devices we use to save digital files may become outdated and obsolete; and files can easily get deleted by accident. Below, we’ll get into detail about how to give your documents and files the best chance for preservation.

Creating an inventory

If you want to preserve your genealogy research, you first have to know exactly what you have. Your successors can’t preserve items they don’t know about or don’t know how to find!

Take stock of all the materials you’ve collected, both physical and digital, and keep that list somewhere easily accessible. Make sure the person you’d like to be handling these items knows about the list and how to access it. Additionally, be sure to update the list from time to time to include new materials.

Preserving physical items

Physical genealogy-related items might include:

  • Photos, albums, letters
  • Binders and folders with printed or handwritten information
  • Slides, negatives, tapes, CDs, floppy disks
  • Devices for storing digital files such as flash drives or external hard drives

It’s always a good idea to keep these items well-labeled and organized, but it’s especially important in the context of future-proofing, because whoever is going to be going through these items after you’re gone may not be a genealogist and may not understand their significance.

Donating items to societies, libraries, and archives

If you have any items of historical value, you may choose to donate them to a historical society, a local library, an archive, or a museum when you are through with them. It may seem simple to merely bequeath these items to the organization in your will, but Thomas points out that it can be a little complicated for such repositories to accept donations. If you want to be sure your items will be received, accepted, and appropriately filed and stored, Thomas recommends taking the following steps:

  • Contact the organization, preferably by phone, and ask about their donation policies.
  • Inform your family members about your plans for the donation.
  • Include a monetary donation to cover any processing costs. Accepting a donation is not just a matter of shoving a box on a shelf — the items will need to be catalogued, digitized, filed, and stored according to the organization’s policies, and that costs money. A rough estimation of processing costs is $50 per linear foot of shelf space. Another option is to sell some of the items to raise money for the preservation of the rest of the collection.

Above all, Thomas urges you to consider donating your items now rather than waiting until after your passing. He points out this is the best way to ensure that your items will be used exactly as you want and will receive the most professional level of care and protection. Libraries, archives, and museums generally have optimal resources, facilities, tools, and conditions for the preservation of historical artifacts and documents.

Yes, you may have some historical photos and documents that are priceless to you, but do you really need to keep the originals? If you create a high-resolution scan and have it professionally printed, you can still enjoy the same image — not to mention all the benefits of digitization, which we’ll explore below — while ensuring that the original is safely preserved.

Preserving digital materials

Digital materials might include:

  • Online family trees and profiles
  • GEDCOMs or genealogy database files
  • Scanned photos and documents
  • Digital books, magazines, and guides
  • Digital writings, including any articles, files, or blog posts you’ve written
  • Emails to and from other researchers
  • Social media posts

Thomas recommends backing up all digital materials on two locations: on the cloud (meaning the internet) and on an external hard drive. For cloud storage, Thomas recommends using a secure, reputable storage service such as Dropbox. For an external hard drive, he recommends using a solid state drive rather than a hard disk drive, as they don’t have moving parts and are therefore more likely to last.

For digital materials that are already online, such as your online family tree or social media posts, it’s still a good idea to back them up in a separate location just in case.

Create a list of all the websites that contain your materials along with login credentials, and keep this list in a safe place. You can print it out and keep it with estate planning papers, or store it online protected with a password (as long as you make sure your executor has the password). If you have enabled 2-factor authentication for any of your accounts, look into ways the executor may be able to access your account if they are unable to access your cellphone. Some services provide one-time-use codes you can write down and keep in your master file along with the login credentials.

Digital successorship

Some websites have a feature that allows family members to take ownership of an account when the account’s owner has passed away. Check the policies of the websites that store your digital genealogy materials, including social media platforms, to see how this can be arranged. Even if you don’t have a lot of valuable material on these websites, your successor will at least be able to disable or remove your account if desired.

MyHeritage allows first-degree family members to take ownership of a deceased person’s account. Click here to learn how.

Keeping your digital backups up to date

There are many advantages to digitization of historical documents and photos. Digitizing makes these items much easier to preserve and share, and you can even use digital technology to enhance and improve your photos and documents — MyHeritage’s Photo Enhancer, for example.

The main disadvantages of digitization are how easy files are to lose and destroy, and how quickly current technology becomes obsolete. If you are still storing photos and files on floppy disks or even CDs, now is the time to transfer them to more current technology, such as the cloud and external hard drives as recommended above. At this point in time, you can purchase a floppy disk reader that you can plug into your computer and use to transfer files, but such devices may no longer be available a few years down the line. Thomas believes that cloud storage is likely to have the greatest longevity among data storage technologies that exist today — but you never know. Keep an eye on the current technologies and trends in data storage and make sure your files will still be accessible for as long as possible.

Using MyHeritage to future-proof your research

There are a number of ways using MyHeritage can help future-proof your family history research.

Your family site on MyHeritage allows you to store and organize information and digital materials, such as documents and photos online. You can also invite family members to view and edit your site. You can even promote family members to become site managers, which will allow them to change site settings, accept or reject discoveries and matches, download a GEDCOM of your tree, and delete your tree, among other privileges. Giving family members access to your tree now will ensure that they will be able to benefit from the information on it even when you’re no longer around. Click here to learn how to promote site members to site managers.

As mentioned above, MyHeritage can also transfer ownership of an account to a first-degree family member of a deceased site owner.

Have this conversation now

It’s not fun to think about what will happen after you die, and it’s even less fun to discuss that eventuality with your loved ones… but all this preparation will be for naught if the family members you’re relying on to preserve your work don’t know what to do! Talk to them now about your plans and wishes.

Having these conversations and making these preparations may not be easy, but it’s the best way to make sure that all the work you put into preserving your family history will not be lost. If all goes well, your descendants will be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor and will deeply appreciate everything you’re doing now to carry your ancestors’ legacy into the future.