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

Friday, October 7, 2016

10 Important Ways to Preserve Your Valuable Genealogical Documents and Records

Genealogists have a tendency to accumulate a lot of documents, photos, records of all kinds and other items about their families. There comes a time in the life of each of us when we need to consider what will happen to all that accumulation of stuff when we end up incapacitated or die. What will happen to all our work? What options are there?

One of the major, tragic events in the genealogical community is when all of this accumulated research work including priceless documents and photographs, sometimes obtained over a lifetime, is simply thrown in the trash and lost. This happens more than most of us would suspect. I have written and talked about this issue many times because I keep seeing repeated instances of it happening.

If you are reading this and arguably still have you faculties, then start to do something about the preservation of your own work today. To help in this process, I have decided to list ten different options. Before listing my suggestions, I would urge you to do an inventory. Look critically at the pile of documents and other stuff you have accumulated and determine what is unique and worth saving. For example, photocopies of online or microfilmed documents are probably not heirlooms. The question here to ask is whether or not what you have is unique or one-of-a-kind or is it a copy of a copy etc. Photographs are generally unique. Copies of census records are not.

Number One: Digitize everything and put the digital images online in a secure website.

When I say digitize everything, I mean scan or photograph everything in your collection of value. Be liberal in your assessment of value. Overcome your natural tendency or that of your spouse or whatever, to consider the whole pile as junk. They didn't spend their life protecting and accumulating this stuff. They should not determine what happens to it.

Number Two: Make sure all the digitized documents, pedigrees and family group records are preserved online on is supported and maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and it is not going to go out of business or go away. No matter how large the other companies have become, they may still go out of business or be sold. If for whatever reason you decide you cannot use, then try to put the digital records on more than one website or make sure they go into a similar non-profit online repository such as a university library.

The actual data collected with appropriate source citations should be added to the Family Tree. If you decide to put a copy on another website, make sure some responsible and interested person knows that it is there and is willing to maintain the subscription to the program.

Number Three: Donate any items of particular historic interest to an appropriate repository.

More than any other suggestion I might make, this is the most important. Many privately published family history books need to be digitized and the digital copies made available online for free. You can do this by scanning the book and sending a PDF copy to for inclusion in their Family History Books section. To do this, you will need to be the copyright holder or obtain permission from the copyright holder. Physical copies of the books can be donated to libraries, particularly university libraries. I just finished taking a huge diary down to the Brigham Young University Library from one of my friends and helping her donate it to the library. Other items may be of interest to museums, historical societies or other such repositories. You may need to contact more than one such entity to find one interested in your particular items.

By the way, there are almost no FamilySearch Family History Centers that have the facilities to accept collections. Here is a link to The FamilySearch guide to Gifts, Donations and Loans.
Also look to your local university special collections libraries and other similar institutions first.

Number Four: Identify family members who appreciate the importance of the records and give them those items that you do not want to give to a library or other repository.

This is probably the most complicated or even difficult option. Often our near relatives have little or no interest in the accumulation of research or even the original documents. But there may be a kindred spirit somewhere out there in your family. I have had several large collections of documents, photos and etc. come to me from distant relatives that I hardly knew, but because of my reputation for interest in such matters, they have given me the documents. Find this person.

Number Five: Talk to fellow researchers about their interest in the collection and let them help you decide what to do with the documents. 

Some of us have enough of a general interest in preservation to assist those around us in determining how to dispose of their valuable collections. But you might be aware that from time to time, there are items of real monetary value that have been preserved, these need to end up in libraries or museums. That old book of photos that has been handed down for ages, may be a valuable collector's item. Take the time to get professional help in getting these items appraised.

Number Six: Don't wait to involve your children or near relatives in the preservation of the valuable parts of your accumulation.

This is a general suggestion that applies to all forms of estate planning. It is a really good idea to include your family members in the future management of your estate. Family dynamics can be a huge challenge. Gift away as much of your estate as you can reasonably do during your lifetime. Do not leave the management of all your research to just one person who may or may not appreciate the value of what has been accumulated.

Number Seven: Take steps to properly preserve your valuable items in a way that emphasizes their importance.

Follow good guidelines for the preservation of various kinds of documents or photos. The best reference for this is found on the Library of Congress website in their Preservation Directorate. This is a huge topic and there are links from the Library of Congress website that will also aid in your preservation efforts.

Number Eight: Keep actively involved in your collection of records and documents as long as you are physically able to do so.

Do not merely dump your records on your relatives, involve them in the process of preservation. Cooperate with and help other older relatives to manage their own accumulation of records and documents. Keep working on your genealogy and collaborating with your relatives as long as possible.

Number Nine: Transfer and preserve any older versions of electronic media immediately.

If your lifetime's work is on a floppy disk in the Personal Ancestral File program, take steps immediately to recapture and transfer that data to more updated format. GEDCOM files from other programs can be uploaded directly to Here is a link to the website section entitled "Contribute your research to the community." Here is a screenshot of the page called "Submit Your Trees."

Number Ten: Communicate, collaborate, become involved in the genealogical community.

More than any other factor, involvement with your relatives and others in the genealogical community will assure you that what you have done will be preserved. Working alone with a possessive attitude of ownership of your research is fatal to its preservation. The more your relatives and the other members of the community are involved in your work, the greater chance someone will help you find a proper place for all your research and documents.


  1. An excellent post, filled with really important "to do" items. Sounds like we're on the same wavelength, by the way. In my presentation, "Planning a Future for Your Family's Past," I cover much of the same ground, including safe storage for originals, continuing backup of digital items, and the need for written instructions to pass genealogy materials to the next generation.

    1. I am not so much of a fan of written instructions. First of all, if the recipient needs written instructions they are probably not the person that should be taking care of the record or whatever and secondly, many written instructions can be simply ignored even if they are codified in a will.

    2. Good points. I have written instructions because there are multiple heirs and to smooth the way, each will get a portion of my genealogy collection. It's all been discussed and my written notes confirm the agreement...which I hope won't be needed for many years, but having it in writing helps to back up our memories. Again, I really like your post.

    3. I guess I should have been more clear. If all you do is leave written instructions about what to do with your genealogy, then no one has the "ownership" of the items and you cannot expect the genealogy to be preserved. If the written instructions are a memorandum of what has already been planned or accepted then this is likely to be more effective.

  2. I am starting my to do list right away one day at a time. What a great idea. Thank you.