28 July 2020

Can Your Genealogy Work Survive Without You?

Act now to preserve your genealogy treasures and leave instructions.

It happened again. While seeking a source for facts in my family tree, I learned a distant cousin had died. This man jump-started my research into our shared Caruso branch.

More than 10 years ago, he mailed me a book about our shared ancestral hometown. He also sent postcards and a brochure from a lodging he recommended when I visit. The book includes a few handwritten notes about our common ancestors.

I said I'd read the book as fast as possible and mail it back to him. He said, "No, you keep it. My children aren't interested in our heritage at all." That made me so sad.

Today my husband pointed to a new pile of letters and keepsakes my mom mailed to me. He said, "So if you die first, do I throw them out?"

I can hear you all shouting No! But do you have a plan in place? What will happen to your countless hours of research when you're gone?

Think through what you have. Decide on—and document—your succession plan today.

Original Documents

I'm not a big paper person. I have a very small collection of official birth, baptism, marriage, and death records. But you may have stacks of them.

Consider storing them in archival-quality boxes. And keep the boxes in a safe place. I inherited a large metal storage cabinet with drawers, a combination safe, and a door. I've moved all the family photos, baby books, and yearbooks into this cabinet.

It'll be a good place to store my recently acquired letter from my Uncle Johnny. He wrote home to tell my grandparents he was promoted to Staff Sergeant and would be able to send home more money. He dated the letter July 1, 1944. He died when his plane was shot down on a bombing run 6 days later.

Be sure to add sheets of paper that explain what everything is.

Document your family heirlooms as you preserve them for the future.
Document your family heirlooms as you preserve them for the future.


These can come in all shapes and sizes, and their meaning can fade over time. My mom sent me her Washington Irving High School beret, which I recognized from old photos. She graduated in 1949!

My sons won't know what it is, but it conjures up a memory for me. Decades ago, I was in the summer home of my ex-in-laws, retrieving something from the attic. I spotted something intriguing. It was a black bowler hat, perched atop a styrofoam head. Pinned to the hat was a handwritten note that said, simply: "Uncle Anton's hat."

I didn't know who Uncle Anton was at the time, but I never forgot that hat. When I did some research into the family, I found Anton as a young man in Wisconsin. That old keepsake brought Anton's paperwork to life for me.

You need to pass on the story of each keepsake. You can do it verbally, write it down, or both.


I paid a professional photographer for help with my grandparents' 1922 wedding portrait. He photographed it, digitally retouched the damaged areas, and put the new print in my old frame. The original photo is safely wrapped and stored away.

You can correct creases, tears, and color loss by scanning your family photos. Think about different platforms for sharing these treasures with your relatives. I used an invitation-only Pinterest board.

Find a safe place to store the originals, and keep backups of the digital files, too.

Digital Files

I have tons of digital historical files in my family tree collection. But it's the vital records that are most precious. Future researchers can find the census files online, the same as I did.

But my set of Italian vital records from a handful of my ancestral hometowns is unique. My copies of the documents are searchable by name. That's because I've been renaming each file to include the name of the person in the document.

This is something I want to share with other descendants of the towns. I don't own the files, but I own the work I've done.

I have all the files on my computer and synchronized on OneDrive. Once a week, I make an off-computer backup of each digital file I've added to my family tree.

I have a specialized database that will appeal to a particular audience.
I have a specialized database that will appeal to a particular audience.

Your Family Tree

I synchronize my Family Tree Maker file with Ancestry.com after each session of work. To me, this is the best way to make my work available to anyone who might care.

I make backups once or twice during a long day of research. I copy the backups to an external drive each Sunday. They sit on OneDrive, too.

Even if you're already preserving your family tree work, there's one important step we all need to take. Type up a document that explains all you've done. Tell your unnamed successor where to find all the bits and pieces you've stored. Make sure the most important people in your life know what you've done and where to find it.

I want you to enjoy the process of doing genealogy research. But I also want you to work on your family tree as if you'll be gone tomorrow. Your family tree is your legacy. Make sure your work outlives you.


  1. My wife looks at my genealogy wall and says, "What should I do with all of this." I already had a list of what was in the bookcase so I marked each book, file box and 3-ring binder with a sticker where each color meant that a different person was to receive it. I then used the list of binders, books and file boxes to indicate the receiver's name, the color of his/her dot, and each item to be received by him/her.
    Now, if something would happen, my wife knows who gets what.

    1. It sounds like you're well prepared. Great job!

  2. I really do need to type up a document. My husband is somewhat conversant and several cousins already have access to my Ancestry tree, but I know I still have to make it clear the extent of my collection and how my research can be accessed. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. I have good intentions but the days slip by so fast.

  4. Such a great article. Thank you for sharing your ideas. They are very useful.