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Preserving Your Research

by Donna Przecha
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I've Got the Information — What's Next?
Expert Donna Przecha shows you the current best practices for ensuring that your family history survives into future generations.

History is very fickle in what it preserves, as a visit to a museum will reveal. Some museums do preserve wonderful statues and priceless jewelry but, more often, the treasures are broken pieces of pottery, simple tools, weapons, objects of everyday life or, quite often, the items from a trash heap. That which is most treasured does not stand any better chance of preservation than the most common object.

One of my favorite poems is Ozymandias by Shelley. It tells of a pedestal inscribed with the words "Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!" The irony is that all around is nothing but desert. The great Ozymandias built wonderful things for all to marvel at, but nothing remained but the mocking words.

Of the seven wonders of the ancient worlds, only the Great Pyramid of Khufu remains intact. These were marvelous works in their time and probably thought to last forever. In view of the frailty of things, how is it possible for genealogists to preserve their work? If the Hanging Gardens of Babylon disappear, how can anyone insure that the history of the Barber family will survive 50 years?

People with all kinds of electronic gadgetry at their fingertips speak of how they can computerize, scan, digitize and otherwise preserve data electronically. The truth is there is no sure way to store information to guarantee it will last for 100 years. Barring a direct hit, the Constitution of the United States in its sealed, guarded, bombproof case, will probably be around, but most individuals do not have the resources to protect materials to that extent. So, what should you do with your research?

Keep Everything in Perspective

First of all, and this may sound cold-hearted, but keep everything in perspective. Most records are not as rare as they once were, so if something does happen to your research, chances are that much of the information will be intact somewhere. Millions of public records, once subject to floods, rats and fires, have now been microfilmed with several copies in different locations.

The original copy of my great grandparents' marriage in 1846 is a case in point. It could easily have met with many mishaps over 150 years. Now, I have photocopied it, sent copies to my siblings, scanned it, and there is also an organization in their county of marriage collecting copies of all marriages. A copy of the record is in many places, so the record, if not the original, stands a much better chance of surviving.

That said, if you have spent countless hours finding records and connecting families and want that research preserved, what is the best way to do this?

Preserving Your Work

To preserve your work you need to use many techniques. Fortunately, there are many methods available for publishing, storing and archiving information. Try to use more than one to improve your odds. Here are the key points:

  1. Interest your children, grandchildren or a relative in genealogy so they will want to preserve the records.

  2. Use as many different methods as possible to store the material.

  3. Keep up with the technology and move your material when newer methods come along.

  4. Share information, but use discretion. Share with people who will respect it and not misuse it.

Here are some options for preservation, as well as the pitfalls of each one. Take a few moments to consider the possibilities. Are you doing what you need to do to keep your research safe?

Computer Programs

Use Genealogy Programs for Organizing and Printing Data
Computer databases are a wonderful way of organizing material but a poor way to preserve it for posterity. First of all, does anyone else in your family know how to run your program or is this hobby yours alone? If you can pass your data on to someone else who knows how to operate the program, then you have at least shifted the problem to other shoulders. However, if there is no one to pass it on to, it could go into limbo.

How many times in the last 5 years has your program had an update? If you leave the information in a computer program, chances are very good that by the time your grandchild or cousin takes an interest, the program will be obsolete. One lady I know of left her data to a public library along with a copy of the computer program. The problem was that the next person who wanted to see what she had done had no idea how to operate the program.

As I said before, computer databases are a wonderful way of organizing information, so use that strength to help preserve your data. If you use a program, it should be able to print hard copy reports. Get your information into a condition that lets you create a logical, consistent report summarizing your research. All your research notes and documents are wonderful (to you) but if your heirs are not into genealogy, most of your papers will probably be tossed or stored in less-than-ideal circumstances. You need to have your information organized such that a non-genealogist can step into it, see what is there, and take it home in a manageable form.

Be Aware of the Same Pitfalls with Scanning Software
By the same token, many genealogists put a lot of faith into scanning pictures. Pictures do fade, but even a faded picture can show us something and can often be restored. A CD with lots of perfect pictures is useless without the equipment to open the files. Technology is changing so rapidly that the process you use today to digitize photographs may not be readily available in ten years. If you are saving pictures electronically, you have to be aware of changes and keep up with the latest advances. Usually programs will be backward compatible for a few versions, but if you don't keep moving the material to each new version, you will find that what you end up with is not compatible with the available equipment.

One person I know said he intended to keep up with the latest methods and move his material. However, once he is gone, if his heirs are not interested in computers and/or genealogy, it could soon become out of date. I read recently (and I don't know if it is true) that the 1960 U.S. census is stored on tapes that can no longer be read because the machines no longer exist. If the U.S. Government, which has relied on census information since 1790, cannot keep up with migrating information to useable technology, I don't know how one individual can cope. When was the last time you moved your data to a new program that required editing or updating and how long did it take you to complete the task?

Paper Copies

Go High-Quality
While paper is one of the most fragile things we use, it can be amazingly hardy, and the written word has the advantage of being understood by almost everyone. I have an announcement from a local newspaper of my great-great grandparents' marriage in 1800. Over the years, every family member that came across this piece of newspaper could immediately recognize that it was something unique and kept it. Even though it is 200 years old, I still have it and anyone can read it.

The problem with paper is that many things were printed on poor-quality paper. For it to stand the best chance of survival, acid free paper is a must. It also should be stored in a room where the temperature or humidity doesn't vary too much. A library, either private or public, often has these conditions.

Have Multiple Copies in Multiple Places
No matter how hard we try to create the best environment, disaster can always strike and paper can be destroyed. The best guardian against this is to create multiple copies which are stored in multiple places. Once you have organized your material and printed it out, make sure that several family members receive a copy. Even non-genealogists usually keep genealogy information if it is in a form they can easily understand. Libraries are the best keepers of books, so also donate copies to genealogical libraries. In this way the information may also be microfilmed or otherwise electronically or digitally reproduced.

Store Original Documents Separately
Separate the truly wonderful things from the mundane. Nowadays we can make copies so easily and inexpensively that we tend to accumulate too many of them. A long description of an area may be interesting, but is not as important as original documents and pictures. Keep your very unique and irreplaceable pieces in a special place — a carefully labeled book or box that anyone could open and see that this is not to be thrown out. Photocopies of books and documents, even official certificates, are important but can be replaced if the source has been noted in your research. Acid free sheet protectors, papers and boxes along with old-fashioned fireproof and waterproof strong boxes might be your best answer for storing original materials.

Electronic Formats

When it comes to electronic formats for storing your data, you should be concerned not only with protecting the existence of your data, but also the integrity of your data. There are a few things that you can do to safeguard it.

GEDCOM Files
A GEDCOM is a very easy way to exchange information, but also one that should be used with caution. It is very useful if several people are combining different branches of a family to combine into one database to be shared or from which to print a family history. It can also be handy if someone wants to compare information. However, it is too easy for the recipients to just incorporate into their own databases and use as their own without acknowledging or evaluating. You may put in links that you consider doubtful and you carefully document and otherwise indicate your unsureness. However, the receiving program may not import these notes or surety indicators so things you don't want publicized as definite suddenly become written in stone.

I put a lot of notes and documentation into my databases and I do not like to send GEDCOM files to people. I will send them text files that they can look over, read and evaluate and, if the material looks valid to them, they can enter into their own programs in their own way. I have worked on some lines for years and I am surprised when people ask me to send a GEDCOM which represents 25 years of hard research so they can add to their research in 10 minutes.

World Wide Web
The Web is another way to distribute material and store it outside your home. It is very easy to create a Web page from many programs and you can post your research for anyone to see. However, as with other storage methods, you shouldn't rely on it alone, because there are downsides. If you have a Web page, you will probably have it posted through an Internet provider so it will not be on your computer. The Internet provider's computer is subject to crashes, hacking or the owner just shutting it down and disappearing.

Another problem with the Web is that you not only have to worry about protecting the data from loss, but also from corruption. When you post material on the Web, you lose all control over it. A person can take whatever you publish, copy it, mix it with other material and re-circulate it with little effort. It is more difficult to do this with printed material. Most researchers are willing to share information, but the biggest complaint is people who take information and publish it as their own without giving any credit to the person who did all the work. Many researchers have concluded that you should not put everything on the Web. Give enough information so the reader will want to get in touch with you to find out more. In that way you can also request information from them instead of always giving it away.

Shared Databases
Similarly, I have very mixed feelings about huge databases compiled from individuals' research. They are good because in many ways they can serve the way printed queries used to. If you find someone researching the same family, you can get in touch with them and compare information. The downside is that if the compiler shuts down his Web site or goes out of business, your information will no longer be available to new researchers. You also have no control over the distribution and use of the databases. It is too easy for people with a casual interest to just download the information and dump it into their own programs.

Procrastinating: One of the Biggest Dangers

As you can see, there are many ways to preserve your hard work, and that choosing more than one method is important. However, one of the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to safeguarding your research is inherent to genealogy itself: it is never finished. You think you will get it all organized once you have had a chance to study all those land records you copied last summer. Or, you need to go through that box of letters and documents your cousin found in his attic. Or, you need to write up some of those wonderful stories your mother told you. Most genealogists prefer the chase to organizing. If you will just take the time to (semi)-finalize at least some of your work now, not only will your heirs benefit, but you too will find it much easier to evaluate new research when the older material is so easy to use.


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