From time to time, as has happened recently, I hear from people who have just "inherited" a huge pile of genealogically related records, documents, photos etc. This usually occurs upon the death or disability of a relative who has spent a considerable period of time amassing this collection of information. In some cases, this occurrence results in the loss of all of the information when it is summarily thrown out and destroyed. But in some rare cases, the recipients are mindful of the value of the information and it is preserved in some form or another. Sometimes the cache of records is maintained in a basement, garage or other storage area until some interested relative comes along and retrieves the records. This has happened to me personally a number of times. I have "saved" quite a number of collections over the years.
The question is, what do you do with this pile of stuff? The answer to this question depends on a lot of factors, most importantly, the interest and ability of the recipient. Most, if not nearly all, of the recipients of such information have not volunteered to receive the pile of records. Many such recipients have neither the time, the ability, nor the inclination to "carry on" the work of the genealogist. There are, unfortunately, very few record repositories that are willing to accept random genealogical papers. The rare exceptions are collections that usually involve prominent historical figures in the geographic areas covered by the repositories' interests.
One interesting effort to preserve these collections is The Genealogical Library Center, Inc. run by Arlene Eakle and her husband in Tremonton, Utah. This is an excellent example of how one or two people can make a difference in preserving these valuable documents. If the collection is unique or has real historical value, there may also be a museum, historical society, state or local library, university special collections library or other institution that is interested in the collection.
The main issue, as described by Arlene, is that the heirs or other family members do not appreciate the value of what the genealogist has accumulated over the years. It is imperative that anyone interested in genealogy be aware of the possibility of the loss of the collections of fellow genealogists and offer to rescue the information if possible.
From my own experience, I would suggest that steps be taken to preserve the information. Of course, the best thing that can happen is that the genealogist will make adequate provisions for sharing and preserving their own research. This often does not happen because of the solitary nature of genealogical research and the type of person attracted to the pursuit. In order to find someone involved and interested, you may have to search well beyond the confines of your immediate family.
First, the nature and extent of the research needs to be evaluated. If the person receiving the collection does not have the background to evaluate the records, then they need to seek help from someone who does. This can be a family member or someone from the greater genealogical community. Ideally, you will find someone who wants to acquire the entire collection. But what if you are the interested person? How do you handle a large amount of information?
What if you determine that the entire collection is nothing more or less than a pile of photocopies and extracted records? Perhaps, the best way to approach this situation is to see how much of what is present is already online in the FamilySearch.org Family Tree or some other large online unified family tree program. One of the collections of records I acquired was nothing more than copies of other, reasonably available records, mostly photocopied family group records. The first level of examination is to determine what, if anything in the collection, is unique and irreplaceable? As I already mentioned, this may include consulting with people who have more expertise in this area.
The value of genealogical data is directly proportional to the degree to which the collection contains original documents, letters, diaries, journals, photographs etc. Any original documents should be preserved even if digital copies of the documents have been made. The value of original documents cannot be underestimated. Steps should be taken to preserve these valuable original documents or artifacts. For information on this process of preservation see Preserving Your Family Treasures from the Library of Congress. There is no substitute for sitting down and looking at each and every document and record in the collection. Without direct examination of the records, assuming that some pile of records is unimportant is extremely dangerous and detrimental to the process of preservation. I am always amazed at what some people with throw away as unusable or of no interest. Where you set the threshold of what to keep and what to throw away is a highly personal decision.
The best possible outcome of any collection is that it is preserved and made available to the family in the future. One way to do this is to digitize any and all of the records and then organize the digital copies online. The best place to do this, in my opinion, is on FamilySearch.org. Presently, the Family Tree program and the Memories program on this website can accommodate huge amounts of family information. Because of the nature of the organization, FamilySearch has in the past and will in the future make every possible effort to preserve the information included in the website.
What if the "collection" is primarily a computer file, either a GEDCOM file or in some other program? This presents a restoration problem, but makes the transition to another more current program possible in some cases. The value of the information contained in the program is, again, directly proportional to the amount of documentation and a record of the sources where the information was obtained. If the same information can be found online, it may only be necessary to compare what is already in the file to what is readily available about the family online.
Do not ignore the issue of preserving and conserving the collection. Take action to ensure that the valuable information is preserved for family members.