OK, please forgive the dramatic title. Before I continue, I’d like to reassure you I’m fine.
This post is about letting your family and friends know what you most value, why it’s valuable, and to whom you’d like to leave it. I’m going to talk about a subject that we genealogists both love and hate: passing on family history.
Don’t you LOVE making new discoveries about your family? Building a library? Connecting the dots, filling in programs, analyzing data, and otherwise totally geeking out on genealogical minutiae that only another genealogist could love? Me too! It was a wonderful bonus when I came home from a family trip (pre-covid) with a precious old photo album tucked in my luggage. We collect the epherma of generations, we family historians, and we fill offices, filing cabinets, bookshelves, and closets with our finds. We spend money on computers, hard drives, and cloud-based backup systems to protect our precious work, and we worry about a computer failure stealing the day’s updates to our trees.
We do all this, and yet I suspect we are not nearly as interested in planning for our legacy.
What happens to our work when we are gone?
We’ve all heard some version of these stories, haven’t we?
Mary spent 30 years of her life building her family tree and collecting stories, photos, and documents. She travelled to the home country. Her place was a storehouse of family memorabilia. And yet when Mary died, none of her family knew what she owned or knew its value. They cleared her apartment in one weekend by throwing everything out.
I don’t know. I wish I could tell you. Grand-uncle Peter was the family historian but he died and there’s nobody to carry on his work.
Are you ready? Take my legacy preparedness quiz.
I want to ask you and please be honest – don’t worry, it’s just between you and I – How solid is your planning for your genealogy legacy?
- I’m so solid I’m way ahead of you: I’ve already begun sharing my work to organizations, and I’ve sat down with family members to tell them the stories of their ancestors. They know what we have and value it.
- Rock solid: I have a written plan in place that I update at least once a year. The people / organizations who are getting my work have been notified. Some family know what we have.
- Good and solid: I have a written plan in place, the people / organizations who are getting my work have been notified, but it’s been well over a year since I last updated it.
- Solid: I have a written plan I review from time to time, but I’m not yet at the stage of figuring out who would get what.
- Medium-firm: I’ve thought about it, and written some notes. Once. I have no idea who might want it.
- A little soft: I think about it from time to time but haven’t written anything down.
- Soft: I have thought about it but I don’t have the first idea how to begin.
- Fantastical: Plan? What’s a plan? Everyone knows I love genealogy because they’ve heard me talk about it. They will know what to do when I’m gone.
Yes, the above list is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’m trying to keep this light. I’m between #3 and #4, myself.
What will be your genealogy legacy?
In this section, I’m going to outline for you things to consider as you think about your legacy. This list will not be a comprehensive list for everyone, but I hope to cover the main genealogical asset categories.
3 basic ideas: Organizing, Valuing, and Asking
There are a few themes running through this list: organizing, valuing, and asking.
Organizing: I’ll be frank and suggest that even the keenest archive may be put off by inheriting a disorganized mass of fonds. Archivist time is precious: the better you are organized, the higher the value of the end product. This goes doubly so for family members. The younger generations are less likely to have permanent homes established – anything they take is something they’ll have to think about packing later.
Valuing: Like beauty, value is in the eye of the receiver. The more knowledge people have about what you’ve collected and why it’s important, the more it will be valued and appreciated.
Asking: This is the big one. Please always ask if an organization or a person would be interested in what you have. It may be that the library would appreciate your collection of phone books stretching back to 1950. (I know they definitely don’t want those National Geographics..!) Most especially, ask your family what they would like regardless of how valuable you think the item might be. I’ve known family to refuse jewellery (too old-fashioned), silverware (needs polishing), and heirloom bone china (too delicate and fussy).
11 things to consider when thinking about your genealogy legacy
|Your genealogy assets: digital and physical||Questions for you:||Consider:|
|Your digital genealogy assets part I: your genealogical work on sites like Ancestry, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, Geni.||Do you have a list of usernames and passwords? Where is it? Is it up to date? Can anyone else access this list aside from you? Who would you like to have ownership of your work?||Appoint editor(s) for your work – someone you trust who could take over. (Not applicable to trees built on FamilySearch – they are a part of the common tree and are accessible by anyone.)|
|Your digital genealogy assets: part II: your computer, tablet, and phone.||Do you have a list of usernames and passwords? Where is it? Is it up to date? Can anyone else access this list aside from you? What would you like your executor to do with your tools?||Write it down and keep it safe so that someone else can get into your devices.|
|Your digital genealogy assets: part III: your collection of applications and documents, e.g., Mac Family Tree, Evernote, Dropbox, Backblaze, Asana, Trello, etc.||Do you have a list of usernames and passwords? Where is it? Is it up to date? Can anyone else access this list aside from you? Who would you like to have ownership of your work?||Consider a password manager. I use 3 including RememBear and LastPass. Sit down with someone else and give them a tour of your work. If it’s extensive, break the intro into 2 or more sessions.|
|Your digital genealogy assets: part IV: your collection of scanned images and photos, wherever they are stored: computer hard drives, cloud drives, flash drives, DropBox, Google Drive, Adobe Lightroom, etc.||How could someone else access these? Who would you like to have ownership of your work? If you use photo management software, that software should be considered as part of the package.||Appoint an editor for your work if it’s cloud-based. Consider other options such as copying and sharing your photo collection by flash drive if cloud solutions do not appeal to you.|
|Your digital genealogy assets, part V: your DNA kits.||Do you own and manage at least one DNA kit? Who will get that irreplaceable info? Cousins?||Someone in the family would be the best bet to take ownership of your DNA assets. If not a direct line descendant, consider a distant cousin who shares DNA.|
|Your physical genealogy assets, part I: original documents (Example: original immigration papers, complete with photos; original birth, marriage, or death records. Not newspaper clippings.)||These are arguably the most valuable items you own, outside of your own work. Who would you like to leave them to?||Depending on the scarcity or usefulness of your documents, consider family, local genealogy societies, libraries, municipal or provincial archives. Write them to ask. Explain their value to family and let them decide if they want them. Archives might appreciate high-resolution scans instead of originals.|
|Your physical genealogy assets, part II: original photos.||Photos span the gamut from original daguerrotypes to digital, and “value” is highly subjective, based on factors from age to fame/notoriety of the subject. Mainly important to family only. Also don’t be surprised if family are only interested in photos of their direct line ancestors. Archives may desire high quality scans, likely in specific file types (i.e., .tif files).||Depending on the scanning quality, scarcity and usefulness of your photos, consider family, local genealogy societies, libraries, municipal or provincial archives. Write them to ask.|
|Your physical genealogy assets, part III: books, pamphlets, maps, and printed materials.||Unless your books and papers are rare, out of print, or hard to find, it’s less likely there will be a good home for these as a collection.||Depending on the scarcity or usefulness of your individual titles, consider family, local genealogy societies, libraries, municipal or provincial archives. Write them to ask.|
|Your physical genealogy assets, part IV: your printed and bound genealogical work.||Have you produced a bound volume of your work? Congratulations!||Of all the genealogical products, these are the most likely to be of interest to historians and genealogists. Consider family, local genealogy societies, libraries, municipal and provincial archives. Write them to ask, and if your work is highly original and unique, you may wish to leave copies with more than one organization.|
|Your physical genealogy assets, part V: your family memorabilia.||Crosses the boundary between genealogy and family memories. More likely to be interesting or useful to family only.||Talk to family members about what you have.|
|For professionals: your virtual and hard assets, and your intellectual property. May or may not include a website.||You are likely to be straddling the boundary between history and genealogy. Where does your work fit? National, provincial / state, municipal archives or a combination? Is there a particular community who would be interested as well? What about your teaching / speaking assets?||You are more likely to know which archives and repositories will value your work. You’re also more likely to be a member of several genealogy and professional associations. You might consider uploading something to the Internet Archive. It’s never too early to start the conversation.|
|Your genealogy assets: digital and physical||Questions for you:||Consider:|
Leaving a well-considered genealogy legacy is a big job. It’s the life-equivalent of sitting down to go through all your genealogy finds to write that report you’ve been procrastinating about. The truth is storage of physical assets is expensive (space, shelving and filing cabinets, cleaning, and archival quality materials). I would argue that storage of digital assets is also expensive (backups to servers on-site and offsite; time – SO MUCH TIME – spent organizing and entering metadata (keyword searches, filing, and file names)).
If you’re only now considering this subject, ask yourself: What legacy do I want to leave behind? Then begin looking at your collection from an outsider’s perspective: What would be useful to an archive? A history association? A genealogy society? Do a bit of research. I know you – research is your jam.
At the barest minimum, I encourage you to tell your family what you’ve got and why it’s important. (And maybe where it’s hidden, if you have it tucked away someplace.)
Me, I have my eye on the future. I want to leave behind a body of work that aids future family historians. It’s a lofty goal, sure, but…
The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.Attributed to Michelangelo
Thank you to Gail Dever of Genealogy à la carte, who had a thought-provoking post this week about a missed opportunity and a third cousin.