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

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What will happen to your genealogical research when you die?

None of us like to confront the inevitable end of our lives and genealogists are no exception. As I have written in the past, one of the constant background tragedies in the genealogical community is the constant loss of years of genealogical work when the researcher dies. The usual scenario is that the researcher has spent years accumulating files, documents, letters, photos and other background information about his or her family and all of that is lost when family members do not appreciate the work done. In extreme cases, all of the work goes into the nearest dumpster.

Back in 2016, I did a webinar on this subject.

What will happen to your Genealogy when you Die - James Tanner

But there is always more to say on this subject. The real issues here are a duplication of effort and a failure to communicate. There is also an underlying issue of failing to adequately prepare for the inevitable. 

What are the priorities?

To begin, there needs to be an honest evaluation of the value of both the information and the physical artifacts. Much of the work done by genealogists consists of copying historical records and information. However, some of the information obtained by research comes from contemporary sources such as memories of relatives. The researcher needs to distinguish between easily reproducible information such as a pile of photocopies and original documentation such as handwritten letters, certificates, diaries, journals and etc. There is a saying, one man's treasure is another man's trash. This is particularly true for the documents in such accumulated by genealogists. It is also complicated by the fact that some people collect everything. In going through inherited piles of documents, the biggest job has been separating the trash from the actual genealogically important items.

Given the technology available today, it should be a priority to scan or otherwise digitize copies of everything. Of course, this simply raises the issue of the preservation of the digital files but to a great extent that can be resolved by storing files in an online repository such as's Memories. An old-school solution is to publish a book containing both the research and copies of important documents and photographs. This is an alternative assuming that the book finds its way into a library where it can then be digitized and further preserved. Once the book is in a library, it will likely be cataloged and the catalog entries made available through

Preserving the physical documents is more problematic. In most cases, survival of the original documents probably relies on the good graces of the family members who inherit the items. Preservation of the physical documents and items by an institutional archive will depend upon a perception of their historical importance.

Sophisticated researchers may be tempted to rely upon testamentary trusts or provisions in a will providing for the preservation of the work. In reality, I have yet to see this happen. Although, I know that it is a distinct possibility and that such provisions may exist. The problem with any testamentary document is that it still relies on the actions of the family members. Current probate actions rarely contain detailed inventories of the deceased property and even mentioning specific classes of property, i.e. documents photographs etc., will not ensure their preservation. The court would only be concerned if the documents at some monetary value.

The real solution here is collaboration. Establishing strategic relationships with other genealogists should be a priority. It is a bonus when these genealogically inclined people are relatives because then they will have an additional motivation for assisting with the preservation of the documents left behind.

For many years now, I have been digitizing records inherited from other family members and where appropriate, donating the original records to various repositories. One problem is that these documents and photographs sometimes seem to disappear but in most cases, they are discoverable in the catalogs of the institutions. This creates a real challenge for subsequent researchers because it requires a certain level of awareness and experience on the part of a future researcher to discover the archived items. The transfer is best accomplished when the entire corpus of the work done by the deceased researcher becomes incorporated in the subsequent work done by the person inheriting the information. Obviously, this does not happen very frequently.

In short, there is no simple solution to the problem. Each individual circumstance is truly unique. This brings up Rule Seven: "Water and genealogical information flow downhill." The idea of Rule Seven is that over time, historical information disappears. The whole idea here is to work through some sort of methodology that will maximize the possibility that the genealogist's work is preserved in some format.

If the core data is preserved, then the bulk of the problem with duplication of effort is minimized. This result is maximized by careful documentation and participation in online preservation efforts through sharing a family tree program such as where there is no maintenance fee required or access fee two subsequent researchers.


  1. I'm really counting on the FS Family Tree continuing forever and beyond because that's where I put all my artifacts, etc.

  2. Good subject, James, but you didn't mention the issue of electronic data other than images/scans. For most people, this will mean their database of choice, online account, or selection of GEDCOM files, but it's actually more general than those. Without standards -- documented ones that can be accessed in many years to come -- then the usefulness and accessibility of such data will quickly evaporate. This scares me, and so it should scare everyone!