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There are a bewildering number of programs that promote websites for recording different types of genealogical data. Some of the categories of these online programs include the following:
- Family tree programs (example: MyHeritage.com)
- "Memory" programs (example: StoryPress.com
- Generic backup or cloud storage programs (example: Dropbox.com)
- Scrapbooking programs (example: MemoryMixer.com)
- Programs for organizing your files, data, photos, etc. (example: HeritageCollector.com)
- Wiki-based family tree programs (example: FamilySearch.org Family Tree)
There is a great deal of overlap between all the different types and categories of programs. Huge online family tree programs such as MyHeritage.com and Ancestry.com allow their users to attached documentation, photos and stories. This is also the case with the wiki-based programs such as Geni.com, FamilySearch.org Family Tree plus its Memories program, WikiTree.com and many more.
The basic issue is whether you wish to collaborate and share data online or are merely looking for another way to backup your genealogy files. If you are a professional or expert genealogist, your expectations and perhaps your perceived needs will largely determine your choices. Some genealogists, will still only be comfortable if they have everything on paper in a file cabinet or boxes. But we must still be mindful of the old adage about keeping all of our eggs in one basket.
Simply from the standpoint of preservation, it is important to backup your digital data in more than one format. Depending on the amount of data, you can use external flash drives, external hard disk drives (spinning media) or online storage. Media such as CDs and DVDs are well on their way to obsolescence. The process of keeping up with the changes in technology is known as "data migration." This is an entirely different topic and one that I will likely write about again in the near future.
It is very discouraging, as happened to me recently, to visit the home of a recently deceased genealogist at the request of the family and find a whole room crammed with documents, notes, books, letters, photos and other stuff and the family has no idea what to do with all of it or where to start. The real question is what actually needs to be preserved? In this case there were perhaps thirty or more think three-ring binders full of notes, photocopies and miscellaneous documents. It would take someone months, perhaps years, to digest all that stuff and make any sense out of it. I know because I have been in the same position with several collections of my own ancestors' documents. How do we get to the end of the question about how much of the content is important to preserve and how much of it is really junk?
In the case of the recently deceased genealogist, the decision is already been made. All of the documents, papers, and other stuff is piled in a huge disorganized mess waiting for the heirs to make a decision about what to do. It would seem, that the online databases answers some of these questions. However, it is also possible that the proliferation of choices online, rather than being a solution, simply add another place to create pile. At the bottom of this issue is the question of how long the various online programs will continue to maintain the individual user's information? In the case of commercial, for profit, companies additional questions arise as to the disposition of the online files when the user stops making payments. What happens to the information if the online company goes out of business? How are research notes online any different than research notes in a three-ring binder? Aren't the heirs faced with the same situation whether the information is online or on paper?
The situation would seem to argue for intense collaboration between generations of genealogists. However, in my experience this seldom happens. Even if the younger generation has an interest in genealogy, it is very likely that they will be working on different research objectives than the older genealogist. The practical reality is that this sort of cross generational cooperation is extremely rare.
There are certain types of documents which in and of themselves are important historical artifacts. However, photocopies of readily available online website content has little or no real practical value. This is especially true if digital copies of the documents have been attached to the individuals recorded in an electronic database. Ideally, the genealogist would have published, either in paper or electronic format, at least a summary of the information gathered. I find this to be a very useful way to ultimately preserve the core information gathered by the genealogist. Unfortunately, in the past, many of these compilations have lacked specific source citations and their value is consequently limited.
The FamilySearch.org Family Tree presents a small window of opportunity to preserve, at least, some of the core information about any family. Presently, the limitations of the Family Tree present some obstacles to its becoming the ultimate solution. Suppose, that the elderly genealogist enters all of their information into the program. Unfortunately, the way that the program is presently structured there is no way to guarantee that this information will not immediately be lost through a improper merger or simply deleted by a careless user of the program. Ultimately, the Family Tree program will contain accurate information but this may not reflect the individual idiosyncrasies of the various contributors.
In summary, it seems to me that the most logical path for genealogists to take in preserving their information, involves maintaining a constant state of genealogical housecleaning. Rather than accumulating large piles of outdated or discarded research notes and other types of documents, it would behoove all of us, as genealogists, to put our affairs in order and communicate clearly the status of our research. It also is extremely important to be concerned about the ultimate preservation of the research efforts that of been completed. We should recognize that putting disorganized information online is not the ultimate solution but merely moves the information from one unconsolidated location to another. In this case, I would suggest we publish before we perish.