Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I have a huge pile of genealogy stuff, what do I do with it?

By Veronidae (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The title of this post addresses issues that are both theoretical and practical. It also raises issues that deal with deep psychological, cultural and social issues. There is a fine line between collecting and hoarding. I see an extremely huge disparity between what some people consider an excessive amount of genealogy related documents, paper etc. and what others consider acceptable. I have dealt with people who have one small box of documents, photographs and papers and are obsessed with all the clutter. When collections get big enough, we call them libraries and museums.

It is also my experience that few genealogists face the inevitable. We are all going to die, just like all our ancestors. There are two main strategies for coping with the inevitable; pass the work along to someone else or transfer everything to a publicly available repository. The key to success in doing either is to confront the issue long before it becomes a crisis. Unfortunately, there will always be those people who are so possessive and obsessive that they antagonize other family members to the point that no one in the family cares about their work and are glad to get rid of it when they pass away, no matter how "valuable" it may actually be. If you are one of these possessive people, you will not at all be interested in what I have to say on this subject. Genealogists can become as mentally ill as anyone else in the population.

The issue here is both a matter of scale and quality, hence the one box issue I already mentioned. But first a few definitions for clarity and convenience.

Genealogical data can consist of both original documents and copies. Some documents can be a copy and an original at the same time. For example, an original handwritten family group sheet could be a treasured document from an ancestor, or it could be merely a copy of information from an easily available source. Think of a family Bible record written by a great-great-grandmother. Most genealogists would treat this as a family treasure. But what about a pile of photocopies made from documents in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah? The disparity should be obvious.

The real question starts with the idea of whether or not the items in the collection can be easily replaced. Are they unique or merely copies of records that can be obtained by some minor effort? Do the items have real sentimental value?

At this point, I need to clarify the concept of a collectable. People collect everything you can think of. One person I know had a huge collection of thousands of the commercial paper toothpick containers you can pick up in restaurants. Genealogical collections must be judged by their content. A pile of paper may be impressive, but does the content have any real genealogical value?

I have people come to me all the time with an old floppy disk full of "valuable" family data they entered into a computer years before, only to find out that the disk contains a few hundred names of recent family members with no sources or documentation. Further, in a few minutes, we find the same information readily available online in any number of family trees. Sometimes the individual genealogist or his or her family are not in the best position to determine the value of the work that has been done.

The basic concept involved in a preservation effort is to digitize the items, make sure the digital copies are in a permanently maintained collection such as the Family Tree and then provide for the conservation and preservation of the originals. I find it incredible that someone would spend their entire life gathering documents and information about their family, only to act defensive when someone shows an interest in preserving it all.

Let's look at the pile and what it may contain. In each category, I will comment on the value of the items.

Category One: Original artifacts, documents and photos
You should always take definite steps to identify and preserve all of these items. These items should also be photographed and digitized and included in an online repository such as the Family Tree. Labels, descriptions and stories should accompany any such objects or documents. For detailed instructions, see the Library of Congress Preservation website. Some really valuable items or documents should be given to repositories such as university special collections libraries and museums.

Category Two: Genealogical notes and gathered information
Too many of us, myself included, spend all our time gathering more data when we really need to focus on what we have already gathered. I am overwhelmed when I see the amount of information some people, myself included, have gathered and failed to organize or preserve. The real question about this category of items is whether or not anyone can "pick up" where I left off? This is one of the most persuasive arguments for collaboration.

Category Three: Items of interest
We all have that pile of stuff we find interesting or helpful, notes, papers, copies of programs, syllabus material, handouts from conferences etc. This is mostly junk and will not be missed by posterity.

Category Four: Books and publications
Books are books. Some books have value as books, others only have value for the material contained therein. Genealogy surname or histories should be donated to a library, digitized and put online or otherwise disposed of. Unique publications, such as privately published family histories can be donated to libraries where they can be digitized and further preserved, but the rest of the books should be treated as books.

The concept here is to take the time to evaluate the pile and take steps to move it, throw it away or organize and categorize it before you get too old or die. Get busy.

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