How to Preserve Your Genealogy Research

You’ve spent a lot of time, energy, and money tracing your family tree. Not to be morbid, but have you thought about what happens to all of that when you’re gone? Don’t leave things to chance. Here are 5 ways to preserve your genealogy research.

1. Organize Your Genealogy

(I hope you’re still reading.) If your organization method is “File by Pile,” your research stands a good chance of ending up in landfill. Can anyone (including a non-genealogist) make sense of what is what? Even well-meaning loved ones don’t have endless time (or energy) to sort through everything. If others can’t make sense of what all of your notes, papers, copies, and scribbles mean and how they fit together, they’re likely to say, “Forget it,” and chuck the whole thing.

This is true for both our paper and our digital files. Are your photos labeled (again, both the paper and digital ones)? Are the documents stored on your computer organized in a logical way, with descriptive file names? Or is everything a mishmash of files like DSC_4718.jpg and perrycowill_174.pdf? Best case scenario is that someone saves your laptop and external hard drives and vows to “someday” figure out what all of it is. (And we know how often those projects actually come to fruition.)

A binder labeled “Our Family History” is more likely to be saved than a pile of file folders strewn across the dining room table. Janine Adams has some excellent advice on organizing your genealogy files in this post.

2. Write and Record Your Family History

This is something we should be doing anyway. Don’t allow your conclusions to reside only in your brain or in your genealogy software (which your descendants probably won’t know how to use or understand its importance). Write them. It doesn’t have to be long. It just needs to be written. While you’re at it, record your memories.

If you don’t feel comfortable writing, try talking into a digital recorder or video camera. Transcribe and annotate an ancestor’s diary or set of letters. Make a scrapbook. Do something!

3. Pass It Around

After you’ve written something, share it. Send a copy to the libraries in the areas where your ancestors lived. Send articles to the genealogy societies for their publications. (Newsletter and journal editors are always in need of material, and they usually accept submissions from non-members.)

By sending copies of your genealogy writing, you’re helping to ensure that even if your genealogy files don’t survive, your conclusions will.

4. Find the Next Generation

Identify someone in the family who would be interested in picking up the baton as the family’s historian. If it isn’t one of your children or grandchildren, what about a niece, nephew, or younger cousin? Work alongside them now and when the time is right, give them your files. (You might even want to put it into your will, so there’s no misunderstanding in case something were to happen before you can transfer the files yourself.)

And don’t assume that nobody is interested. There are a lot of people who are interested in the stories, but don’t have an interest in the research process. (Check out this post for some ways to not bore people when you mention genealogy.)

5. Donate Your Genealogy — with Preparation

So you’ve decided to leave all of your files to your local library or genealogy society. You’ve even written it into your will. Awesome! But does that library or society know that stuff is coming? Do they even want it?

Not every library will accept loose materials like your genealogy papers. Also, it might not fit into what they collect in terms of subject. (If your local library is in Nebraska, but your research revolves around families in Maine, your library might not want it.) Talk to your intended library or society before you draw up your will. See if they’re interested and what shape the files need to be in. While you’re at it, include a cash donation in your will to help them offset the cost of processing your research. (Even better: Donate the material before you die. It will save your descendants from trying to figure out what to do with it.)

Don’t be like the ancestors who tossed out their letters and lost the family Bible. Take steps now to preserve your genealogy research. Future generations will thank you.


box of books and woman's photo with title How to Preserve Your Genealogy Research

Posted: October 10, 2021.

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  • Jean Naisbitt has made a recorded webinar for the BYU Family History Library with the title, “Inherited Family Records? Now What?” In it, she offers advice about materials that should be kept or thrown away, with suggestions about the in-between items. I have been trying to go through this process with my own material from this point of view in hopes of making it more attractive to a younger relative. The video is here:

  • I have recently found your Facebook page and subscribed to your email blogs. You approach tasks with doable lists, and taking a “long view” of the most disliked parts of Genealogy. Thanks for that! I often wish those who left me with this “cleanup” had had YOU to encourage them. I would have found many more interesting stories by now, I’m certain! Keep up your excellent writing!

  • I have taught classes in what to do with your research – the first thing is: Back Up, Back Up, Back UP. L.O.C.K.S.S. – Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. Think fires, floods, hurricanes, a tornado or 3 or 4, etc. We have seen multiple events in the last few years and I shudder to think how much family material, artifacts and so on have been lost through lack of preparation or just plain “I’ll do that project tomorrow”.

  • I was at a loss as to what to do with all my little notes that were lying about my desk. I am researching so many different family lines that my desk has contracted ADD! I bought an expandable file and labeled the 12 different tabs with family names that I am most interested in. Now every time I only have a few minutes to research and scribble down some information the note can immediately go into the appropriate pocket for review at a later date. I can now see the wood top of my desk and will actually be able to go back to the notes I thought were important to start with.

  • I love the dictation feature on my phone!
    I spend a lot of time helping my elderly parents who love to talk about the past. Whenever I hear a story from a family member as soon as possible I dictate the story and send it to myself in an email. When I get home I edit it and save it in a Word document and put it in a family folder. It’s been a great way to capture family information.
    It’s also great for recording the details of a doctors visit!

  • I’m working on cleaning up my paper files and making sure everything is labeled and cited properly. I’m organizing my digital files in a similar manner. I’m also preparing a document that explains how I’ve organized my files (paper and digital), my RootsMagic databases, and my backups. I have no idea if my son will pick up the genealogy after I’m gone, but at least he will have something to guide him if he does.

  • Amy – Besides my genealogy software I have a 600-page descendancy genealogy on my mother’s family. I am in the process of sending to a member of each major family group a digital copy of the genealogy (4th edition) and a descendancy chart for their side of the family (g-grandfather had four children with descendants). So there are 10 copies of the book out there in case I need one.