Keep Your Family History From Ending up in the Dumpster

By – Sherry Stocking Kline
Printed in Wichita Eagle’s Active Life Magazine – Aug 04

The nightmare of many genealogists is that the minute they die their kids will haul years of family history research, one-of-a-kind documents, and priceless photographs out to the curb for the first trash truck that comes along.

What can you do to keep countless hours of research and family history from becoming part of tomorrow’s landfill?

First, make sure you have something someone will want to keep. If you leave behind a jumbled up pile of unidentified photographs, mixed-up documents, and notes with no organization, your genealogical heir may throw up his (or her) hands and throw in the towel.

Your research “has a much better chance to be saved if it’s organized,” said Donna Woods, former librarian for Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society.

“My granddaughter’s husband sat me down one day,” and told me that I needed to get it (my genealogy materials) in some kind of order because if something happened to me they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

Woods said that she doesn’t believe it makes any difference what system you use, just that you use one, and don’t use the ‘pile-it’ method, though she added that she still does “have a few piles” even after organizing with file folders and notebooks.

“Mark in your books which ones are keepers and should not leave the family,” Woods said, adding she wrote a note inside the cover of each book that pertain to the family.

Nancy Sherbert, curator of Photographs, Kansas State Historical Societysuggested that you label documents, write on photographs, and organize materials into family groups alphabetically. Sherbert said photographs without identification or dates have very little meaning to family members or as historic documents.

“We don’t think about that when we take our photographs,” Sherbert said, “we know who they are. But when we’re gone, others can’t appreciate the historical value of those photographs because they don’t know who the people are, what they are celebrating, and why they are all together.”

Woods said you should have a really serious discussion with your family, and see if someone is interested in your genealogy work.

“It may not be your child,” Woods said, “it may be a grandchild or a niece or nephew.” Woods’ daughter was not interested in furthering her genealogy research, but a discussion with a granddaughter in her mid-twenties rewarded Woods with a possible new home for her research.

“I’m so glad that you are doing this, Grandma,” said Wood’s mid-twenties granddaughter, “I want to do it someday, but I can’t do it right now.”

Preserving your family’s history doesn’t necessarily mean keeping all the information in your immediate family. Woods said she made the decision to place some of her research where it would do the most good, in the two counties in Illinois where her ancestors originally resided.

“It makes a lot more sense to place my research there in those counties,” Woods said, “for other researchers to find.”

Once you’ve made sure that no one in your family wants your collection, the safest way to keep your materials out of the dumpster, according to Sherbert, is to add to your will “I’d like for my photographs, letters, and diaries to be donated to…….

“Go ahead and establish some kind of collection with an institution,” Sherbert said, “and make it clear to your executor and family that remaining materials are to go to the institution.”

“Just make some sort of arrangements,” Sherbert said, adding that materials donated to a historical society, library, or museum should be preserved and available for research for decades “unless there is some kind of preservation problem.”

8 Responses to “Keep Your Family History From Ending up in the Dumpster”

  • I really enjoyed this post Sherry. I have a box of pictures that no one else wanted when my mother passed away. I sure wish I knew who some of those characters were. Once I get moved I will start going through the box and writing names on the ones I know. I’ll try to organize them somehow. The big trick will be finding a family member to pass them on to. So congrats on getting this thing going…FINALLY!

  • i would also create digital online back-ups, which is what we focus on. They complement your personal docs like an insurance policy against loss, theft, destruction….. unfortunately I hear of this happening way too often in my line of work :( Good article!

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  • Thanks for the great comment Antje! You are sooo right. It is so easy to forget that hard drives crash! I appreciate the comments and the Tweets! I love your website at http://www.storyofmylife.com! I want to spend more time at your website soon! This one is still a work in progress, but want to add links to other genealogy blogs soon! Sherry

  • Wanttodoit:

    Great advice. Not only death or incapacity, but hard drive destruction is a concern. We always assume other family members feel the same as we do.
    I suggest putting it online and backing up with a thumb drive (removable) and kept in a safe.
    I just started using Ancestry.com and it is a great resourse.

    • I sure think you are right! I’ve got my ‘stuff’ backed up, but need to back it up, back it up, and back it up. I think, but haven’t done it yet, that I’d like to put a back up in my safe deposit box, and also think I’d like to back it up on-line. I have many of my photos backed (free) online at my http://www.TurnMemoriesIntoBooks.com Heritage Makers website, but until I get them all captioned, I won’t have them all uploaded! Now I just need to find another back up for the rest of the hard drive.

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