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

Sunday, March 3, 2013

What will happen to your genealogy files when you die?

My Great-grandmother spent a good part of her life doing genealogy, but when I started my own genealogical research, years after her death, I could find almost no evidence of her activity. After years of research, I finally found that all of her files had been sitting for years in my Aunt's basement. After this discovery, I was finally able to obtain the files that contained literally thousands of names, documents, letters, diaries, histories and other items. I spent the next fifteen years entering all of the data into computer programs and scanning all of the documents.

See the Mary Ann Linton Morgan Documents at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah on CD-ROM. CD-ROM no. 2328 pt. 1 and CD-ROM no. 2328 pt. 2 viewable on the Fam Hist FamilySearch Desktop.

In this case, most of the files were saved more through accident than design. Have you ever wondered what will happen to all your genealogical research upon your own demise? In another example, while I was presenting recently in Vero Beach, Florida, one of the Indian River Genealogical Society members presented the President of the Society with a stack of genealogical papers for their library. It seems that one of the local genealogists had dedicated a great deal of his latter life to genealogical research, but he had no close relatives and upon his death the stack of research was on its way to the dumpster when it was rescued by this friend from the Society. Will your genealogical files end up in the dumpster?

We all have the tendency to think that our relatives were special and so there must be a library or museum or historical society that would like our records. It is quite common at the Mesa FamilySearch Library for someone to donate their dead relative's records to the Library for safekeeping. This may very well be the case, but the vast majority of the genealogical papers donated turn out to be nothing more than copies of copies of old Family Group Records of no value to the Library or anyone else. In addition, the Library, like most repositories, has very limited space to store boxes of old papers that are neither cataloged or organized.

So, the first rule of preserving your research should be to do it right. Make sure what you are doing is really valuable research that someone besides yourself would be interested in preserving. Make sure it is adequately organized in an accessible genealogical database program and that the members of your family, whether they are interested or not, understand where and how they are organized. One good way to begin that organization is to digitize all of the source records you have in your possession, photos, documents, certificates, everything. Then make this whole collection available online to your greater family, thus increasing the chance that someone will be interested in obtaining those original records from you when you die.

It is not a good idea to depend on wills and court probate to take care of things like private papers (i.e. genealogical research) when you die. Unless the collection has some sort of monetary value that will be assigned by the estate, the documents can be summarily thrown out by the administrator or executor of the will, even if there was something in the will disposing of the documents. In addition, let's suppose that doesn't happen and the documents are given to the devisee in the will. What if the recipient of the documents throws them in the nearest garbage can? What can anyone do about it? Absolutely nothing, especially if the documents are considered "personal effects without value." Wills and probate are all about titled property and money, not genealogical research.

Providing for the documents to be given to some library or other institution is almost as futile. That is, unless the person giving the documents has made extensive prior arrangements for their acceptance and use by the library. This may include giving the library sufficient funds to store and catalog the documents. Of course, all this changes if the person dying is famous or rich. The library might be more than happy to get the documents of a famous actor or politician. But most of us are not famous and no one really cares about what happens to our research or documents.

The best case scenario is to make sure that everything is transferred to someone who is interested before you get too old to take care of your affairs. No matter how difficult it is to part with the stuff, give it away before it is too late.

In addition, make sure that all the information goes onto an appropriate website online that will keep the information off into the future. FamilySearch Family Tree has all the characteristics of such a place to put the information and if the present difficulties with the data are sorted out, that would be my first choice, merely because I figure they will have the greatest chance of longevity.


  1. My grandmother was not a genealogist, but because she outlived most of her 16 brothers and sisters (ten were half brothers and sisters) she became the family historian. One of the newspaper clippings I found in her bible was about the estate sale of her sister and it had a lot of household goods and at the end two family photo albums, too bad she did not give them to someone that would appreciate the photos

  2. Mmm. I have inadvertently become the family historian.Probably because I'm old and have a good memory. This seems to be not only for my immediate family but inlaws who ask about what memories I have about -'when their mother was a teen?', 'where did the family move in the 60s?' etc. My son is researching the other side of the family. I'm not sure how he's organising things, but he will be 'the one' to pass all this on to. Some oldies scoff at my interest and say they'd rather forget the hard time or even the 'good times' but I'd never tell some of those stories and I don't pass on what could be gossip. I'm loving what has been a hobby up until now. Now that I'm getting so organised and doing this diploma I will make sure all the stuff i have is handed on to someone who cares. thank you for your interesting food for thought.

  3. I appreciate that this is what is recommended. However, for me, genealogy is about the process, not the product. I have been researching for more than 40 years - as much for others' families as for my own family and I have specified in my will that all documents and digital data relating to my family history research must be destroyed immediately upon my demise.
    It's a bit like doing cryptic crosswords - being told the answers gives no satisfaction whatsoever.