|by Donna Przecha|
History is very fickle in what it preserves, as a visit to a museum will reveal. Some museums do preserve wonderful statues and priceless jewelry but, more often, the treasures are broken pieces of pottery, simple tools, weapons, objects of everyday life or, quite often, the items from a trash heap. That which is most treasured does not stand any better chance of preservation than the most common object.
One of my favorite poems is Ozymandias by Shelley. It tells of a pedestal inscribed with the words "Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!" The irony is that all around is nothing but desert. The great Ozymandias built wonderful things for all to marvel at, but nothing remained but the mocking words.
Of the seven wonders of the ancient worlds, only the Great Pyramid of Khufu remains intact. These were marvelous works in their time and probably thought to last forever. In view of the frailty of things, how is it possible for genealogists to preserve their work? If the Hanging Gardens of Babylon disappear, how can anyone insure that the history of the Barber family will survive 50 years?
People with all kinds of electronic gadgetry at their fingertips speak of how they can computerize, scan, digitize and otherwise preserve data electronically. The truth is there is no sure way to store information to guarantee it will last for 100 years. Barring a direct hit, the Constitution of the United States in its sealed, guarded, bombproof case, will probably be around, but most individuals do not have the resources to protect materials to that extent. So, what should you do with your research?
Keep Everything in Perspective
First of all, and this may sound cold-hearted, but keep everything in perspective. Most records are not as rare as they once were, so if something does happen to your research, chances are that much of the information will be intact somewhere. Millions of public records, once subject to floods, rats and fires, have now been microfilmed with several copies in different locations.
The original copy of my great grandparents' marriage in 1846 is a case in point. It could easily have met with many mishaps over 150 years. Now, I have photocopied it, sent copies to my siblings, scanned it, and there is also an organization in their county of marriage collecting copies of all marriages. A copy of the record is in many places, so the record, if not the original, stands a much better chance of surviving.
That said, if you have spent countless hours finding records and connecting families and want that research preserved, what is the best way to do this?
Preserving Your Work
To preserve your work you need to use many techniques. Fortunately, there are many methods available for publishing, storing and archiving information. Try to use more than one to improve your odds. Here are the key points:
Here are some options for preservation, as well as the pitfalls of each one. Take a few moments to consider the possibilities. Are you doing what you need to do to keep your research safe?
Use Genealogy Programs for Organizing and Printing Data
How many times in the last 5 years has your program had an update? If you leave the information in a computer program, chances are very good that by the time your grandchild or cousin takes an interest, the program will be obsolete. One lady I know of left her data to a public library along with a copy of the computer program. The problem was that the next person who wanted to see what she had done had no idea how to operate the program.
As I said before, computer databases are a wonderful way of organizing information, so use that strength to help preserve your data. If you use a program, it should be able to print hard copy reports. Get your information into a condition that lets you create a logical, consistent report summarizing your research. All your research notes and documents are wonderful (to you) but if your heirs are not into genealogy, most of your papers will probably be tossed or stored in less-than-ideal circumstances. You need to have your information organized such that a non-genealogist can step into it, see what is there, and take it home in a manageable form.
Be Aware of the Same Pitfalls with Scanning Software
One person I know said he intended to keep up with the latest methods and move his material. However, once he is gone, if his heirs are not interested in computers and/or genealogy, it could soon become out of date. I read recently (and I don't know if it is true) that the 1960 U.S. census is stored on tapes that can no longer be read because the machines no longer exist. If the U.S. Government, which has relied on census information since 1790, cannot keep up with migrating information to useable technology, I don't know how one individual can cope. When was the last time you moved your data to a new program that required editing or updating and how long did it take you to complete the task?
The problem with paper is that many things were printed on poor-quality paper. For it to stand the best chance of survival, acid free paper is a must. It also should be stored in a room where the temperature or humidity doesn't vary too much. A library, either private or public, often has these conditions.
Have Multiple Copies in Multiple Places
Store Original Documents Separately
When it comes to electronic formats for storing your data, you should be concerned not only with protecting the existence of your data, but also the integrity of your data. There are a few things that you can do to safeguard it.
I put a lot of notes and documentation into my databases and I do not like to send GEDCOM files to people. I will send them text files that they can look over, read and evaluate and, if the material looks valid to them, they can enter into their own programs in their own way. I have worked on some lines for years and I am surprised when people ask me to send a GEDCOM which represents 25 years of hard research so they can add to their research in 10 minutes.
World Wide Web
Another problem with the Web is that you not only have to worry about protecting the data from loss, but also from corruption. When you post material on the Web, you lose all control over it. A person can take whatever you publish, copy it, mix it with other material and re-circulate it with little effort. It is more difficult to do this with printed material. Most researchers are willing to share information, but the biggest complaint is people who take information and publish it as their own without giving any credit to the person who did all the work. Many researchers have concluded that you should not put everything on the Web. Give enough information so the reader will want to get in touch with you to find out more. In that way you can also request information from them instead of always giving it away.
Procrastinating: One of the Biggest Dangers
As you can see, there are many ways to preserve your hard work, and that choosing more than one method is important. However, one of the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to safeguarding your research is inherent to genealogy itself: it is never finished. You think you will get it all organized once you have had a chance to study all those land records you copied last summer. Or, you need to go through that box of letters and documents your cousin found in his attic. Or, you need to write up some of those wonderful stories your mother told you. Most genealogists prefer the chase to organizing. If you will just take the time to (semi)-finalize at least some of your work now, not only will your heirs benefit, but you too will find it much easier to evaluate new research when the older material is so easy to use.
About the Author
I began genealogy in 1970 when we were living in Ogden, Utah for a short time. I was immediately hooked when, on my first visit to the local Family History Center, I found my great-grandparents in the 1850 Ohio census. I have been researching ever since on my own family and for others. I soon recognized the value of computer programs for keeping track of the data. I was a founding member of the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego and editor of the newsletter. I have written a third party manual on ROOTS III and, with Joan Lowrey, authored two guides to genealogy software. Using ROOTS III and WordPerfect, I have written several family history books for others, but have yet to stop researching long enough to complete my own family history!