Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Digital Genealogical Disaster Plan or What's the Minimal Amount of Family HIstory to Pass On?

For a while now I've had something nagging at me. After reading Michael John Neill's Rootdig post titled Cleaning Mother's House, it's really been niggling at me; especially as it relates to digital files. Today we seem to accumulate more and more digital documents through continuing research as well as by scanning our paper documents. Don't get me wrong, we should be digitizing, backing up, and migrating our files as technology changes. But I also think about who is going to be left with these files that could be wiped out with the stroke of a few keys. If that statement made your skin crawl, it should!

If you have family members who aren't as enthusiastic about family history research as you are, you have a potential digital nightmare on your hands should you die or become incapacitated. None of us wants our hard work to be wiped out by disaster or deliberate act but that's exactly what could happen.

I've been toying with a "Digital Genealogical Disaster Plan" of sorts. It's along the same lines as a natural disaster plan: if you have 3 minutes to get out of your house, what are you going to grab? If you die or are incapacitated tomorrow, what do you want your family to know is important?

I've started a file called "1IMPORTANT-DONT THROW AWAY-THIS MEANS YOU" (the title starts with a 1 so it sorts to the top). In it go copies of only the most important genealogy and family history files. I'm hoping to make my family understand that if they don't/can't save everything, at least they need to save these items. If I use the KISS method (Keep It Simple Silly), I'm hoping to have some success.

This file folder will contain things like:
  • A backup copy of my database with all of its cited information.
  • A pdf "dump" of the contents of my database.
  • Copies of really super critical original documents.
  • One of a kind copies of ancestral photos.
  • A copy of the Heirloom Book.
  • Notes of interviews with family members (including notes about my own life).
The trick is in deciding what is so important that it just can't be thrown away. I'm hoping, if I keep it really, really simple, maybe this file folder will have a better chance of surviving into the future where someone will realize the valuable treasure they have on their hands.

Surely there will be more to say on this in future posts. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts too.

© 2010, copyright Michelle Goodrum


  1. Great ideas, Michelle. As one who has inherited thousands of papers of variable importance (grocery lists and birth certificates) it is critical to highlight what is significant.

    I admit to enormous sympathy for those heirs who don't share the interests of their loved ones. I AM interested and even I dream of setting the boxes ablaze.

    My goal is to distribute the information as widely and in as many different formats as possible so that future researchers will have a shot at finding what I've gathered. It's my buckshot approach.

  2. I like it. Simple is always good.

  3. I keep all my family history data (including scanned copies of birth, marriage and death certificates) on an external hard drive. This can easily be grabbed and doesn't weigh all that much.

  4. Hi Michelle,
    This is a great plan. I have a similar system on my computer (and backed up in two clouds and one external hard drive).
    For the non genealogists who might not want to wade into my files I need to publish more heirloom type books or do overview maps. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of having a disaster plan.

  5. I am really at a loss. I have literally 25 bankers boxes of material. We have a tiny family and no one will care. But I should have some sort of plan. I have literally thousands of pages of letters and diaries spanning the 20th century. I can't possibly scan them all (unless that's how I want to spend the last good years of my life).
    I'm hoping to find a place to donate the most important as primary documents for research.
    But I should prioritize and have a plan! Thanks for some great ideas!

  6. Yup, this definitely needs to be a priority for the coming year. I'm thinking a labeled box with the most important documents and old photos, memory sticks or whatever with a copy of the most important files (updated monthly) to include scanned pictures. It would be left by the doorway, to be removed after people and cats have been evacuated. My family knows how much this stuff means to me, but they wouldn't know what to take, so you are absolutely right, the simpler the better.

  7. Michael's post freaked me out, and you've inspired me to make a Disaster Plan - thanks. I think I'll give my sister an external hard drive with all the genealogical and other valuable data on it. Jo

  8. I have been thinking about this ever since a newly-found cousin mentioned that she knew nothing about the family, because when her great grandfather died, her grandfather had cleaned up the house and burned all of the contents. Her brother's children found my website by Googling their grandfather's name.

    My "succession plan" is:
    1. My children will periodically be given a copy of my research and family history books I have created.

    2. I try to keep my children sufficiently interested, so that they will want to keep a copy.

    3. All of my research will be put online at various locations.

    4. I will try to find a library or archive that will keep copies of the books in perpetuity. (still working on this one)

    Hmmm ...
    Arlene Eakles Genealogy Library Center has accepted donations of genealogical materials.

    The Family History Library accepts some donated materials too.

  9. Good post, Michelle! I've been worrying about this very thing for a year or so. I'll be incorporating some of your ideas (especially the Don't Delete This file).