Preparing Your Family History For Future Generations

Written by: Pamela Baster, DAR Library Manuscript Curator and Stacie Newton, DAR Library Assistant Director
September 29, 2017

Did you know that October is Family History Month?  Many DAR members are avid genealogy researchers and are focused on researching past generations of our ancestors.  Most people have to admit that even if they do not consider themselves to be “genealogists,” they have some desire to know about their past and their ancestors.  But, do you ever think about what you need to be doing to preserve the records that you have about your ancestors?  And, what about the “documents” that you create during your lifetime?   Just as we want to learn about our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and other ancestors, our grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, and extended family will also want to learn more about us and our lives.

As custodians of the nearly 600 genealogical and research collections in the DAR Manuscript Collections, we’ve encountered a vast amount of genealogical and family history materials that researchers and individuals have left behind.  These collections arrive in a variety of forms, formats and conditions, so we would like to share a few things to think about as you’re saving your own family history and memories.

There are a couple different aspects of this topic to think about.  The first is to think about how you will preserve the genealogy research you have done. The second and possibly more important is to think about the records that you are leaving behind about your own life.

Organize and identify your materials!

Make sure there's an order to the records you’ve collected.  Whether these are original documents related to your ancestors and your genealogy research or your own birth certificate and marriage record.   There are a number of different organizational methods you could use.  You could file everything alphabetically, group records by family, group records by record type, or use a numbering system to put them in order. Don’t forget that this idea of organization applies to both paper filing systems and how you store your electronic images and files on your computer or in the cloud.  Don’t forget to provide an explanation of your organizational system so future researchers aren't left wondering what you were doing with your files.

When you’re compiling documents and family trees, be sure to cite your sources. Even though this may not be the most interesting part of genealogy research, writing source citations is so important. Make sure future researchers know where you got your information. Include specifics, like authors, editions, page numbers, and any other identifying information you (or future researchers) may need if the source ever needs to be located again.

If you have old family photos, portraits, letters, a family Bible, heirlooms or other artifacts, make sure that you have written down the provenance of the item.  How did it come into your possession?  Who owned it before you did?  Having a written provenance can help your descendants understand the significance and value of the item.

Think about the records you’re leaving and the questions your descendants will ponder.

When you research your ancestors, what types of documents are you looking for?  Birth Records, Death Certificates, Marriage Records, Wills and Probate Records, Census Records, Land Records, Letters/Diaries/Journals and Photographs are all valuable genealogical sources that we use when researching our ancestors.  Will you be leaving these types of documents behind? 

We often ponder questions about our ancestors.  Why did they move from here to there? How did they meet their spouse?  Why did they decide to do that job?  Were they lying to the Census taker?  Are you leaving documents behind that will allow your descendants to find answers to these questions about your life?  Many of these answers are historically found in letters, diaries,  journals or photographs.  In today’s age, most “correspondence” occurs via email, text, on Facebook or over the phone.  All of these modern mediums have inherent problems with the long-term retention of that valuable family information conveyed.  While there are some ways to archive some of these types of communications, they are all complex processes that may be difficult to maintain for long-term record retention.  Have you considered journaling or keeping a diary or writing a memoir to record the events of your life, both big and small?

Don’t forget to label your photos—whether printed or digital.  Our Manuscript Collections include so many unlabeled (or cryptically labeled) photos that interested researchers cannot identify.  Even though you might look at the family photo that you took on your iPhone last Christmas and know who every person is and how they are all related, it only takes a generation or two for that ability to “recognize” the pictured people to be lost.  Also, keep in mind that labeling a photo only as “Three Merritt Sisters” may not mean much to future generations who don’t know exactly who the “Three Merritt Sisters” are.

Preserve your records

Make sure that the paper documents that you have are stored in a condition that will allow them to last for future generations.  If you have a lot of printed photos or photo albums or scrapbooks, make sure that you they are kept in a manner that ensures that they will last long-term. 

A lot of genealogists use computer programs or online sites to keep their family trees. Unless you are completely committed to keeping your family tree up to date, and moving it from one digital medium to the next every couple years or so and making sure it has migrated successfully without data loss; having paper files has been the most consistently stable medium since paper was invented. If you do keep your files entirely electronically, keep in mind that you need to keep consistent backups.  If some of your material is only available via a login with a password, make sure that others will have access to it in the future.

Consider donating your research to a local historical or genealogical society, if they have archival collections. Different institutions have different collections policies; accept materials in different formats and mediums; and have different access and copyright policies.  Most institutions will work with you to help you understand these policies before you donate your materials.  By placing your research into the hands of an institution, you are both ensuring its long term preservation, and opening up your research to others who have the same ancestors.

Want more tips?

Follow the DAR Library on Facebook throughout the month of October as we share more tips for Preparing Your Family History For Future Generations.   

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