To an outsider, genealogy must seem like an inherently morbid pastime. After all, genealogists are obsessed with death records, obituaries, cemeteries, gravestones, estate documents, inheritances, eulogies, death masks, etc., etc.
The truth of the matter is, any form of historical research is a backwards-looking exercise designed to understand and document the past. And yes, death records, obituaries and the like can provide valuable clues in such research. But as a historian and genealogist, have you considered your own demise? Will your own descendants someday have a difficult time piecing together the details of your life because you spent so much time researching and documenting the lives of your ancestors that you forgot to document your own life story? And what of all your research… all the years and decades you spent uncovering your family’s past… all the records you have accumulated… all the old photographs you have discovered… all the boxes of priceless information you have saved??? What will happen to these valued possessions after you are gone?
Following are some thoughts to consider.
Value is Subjective
As a genealogist and family historian, my research files, antique photographs and old family artifacts are some of my most valued possessions. Sadly, though, I have come to learn that not everyone places a similar value on such things.
Years ago, for example, I was saddened to learn that a distant cousin, who had been in possession of some old family photo albums that dated back to the early 1800s, had given away some of these albums to friends. Worse yet, he gave them away to friends as gag gifts when they turned 50 (joking that his friends were becoming as old and antique as the photos in the albums)! Upon learning this, I was horrified at the thought of having forever lost some priceless photos that were of common ancestors I share with this cousin.
In another line of my family, after the death of one of my great-great grandfathers in 1875, his widow turned to her brother for help in managing the family’s extensive land holdings and businesses. In an effort to organize and “simplify” life for his sister, this well-intentioned brother destroyed by fire generations of old family records that he deemed to be of no more value. Gone forever was valuable evidence of the family’s past in Ireland and of all that my great-great grandfather and his father before him had done to build a working plantation on thousands of acres in Maryland.
The moral of this story is to make sure that others understand the value you place on your genealogy and historical records and to take proactive steps to preserve them before they meet a similar fate at the hands of a family member who simply sees them as redundant and useless records of the past.
Focus on Preserving a Legacy
One way to improve the odds that your research materials will survive is to change the focus of your research. The reason many family members see genealogy as boring is because family group sheets, pedigree charts, birth certificates and death certificates ARE boring. And if such things are the bulk of what you have to show for your genealogy hobby, you run the risk that someone else will see them as no different than your completed sudoku and crossword puzzles. If you really want others to see value in your research efforts, you need to bring your research to life. This means that you need to flesh out the details of not just when your ancestors were born and when they died, but how the lived, why they made the decisions they did, what their beliefs and values were, etc. These are the things that make one’s ancestry a heritage or a legacy. Most people want to understand why they have the traits they do, why they look and act the way the do; and a historian who is able to unlock these secrets from the past stands a much greater chance that his or her research will survive the test of time.
Publish Your Results
Most cities and states have historical societies (following is a good list of some of the better known ones: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_historical_societies). Many also have genealogical societies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genealogical_societies). There are, likewise, many national historical and genealogical societies, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Most of these societies typically publish monthly or quarterly journals; and they welcome submissions for publication that are well researched, well documented and of interest to the focus of their organizations. I should add, getting published in such a journal doesn’t require having a famous ancestor that you can write about. Rather, it requires a focus on historical accuracy and being able to share information on how residents, famous or not, lived in historical times in those communities that are the focus of the historical society in question. Again, this is the difference between simple dates of birth and death and a historical narrative that constitutes a legacy. In any case, getting published is a way to preserve the results of your research (as historical and genealogical societies maintain libraries and are passionate about their preservation efforts).
Donate Work of Historical Value to a Library
Depending on the scope and focus of your research collection, some libraries might be interested in accepting your work into their permanent collection. Historical and genealogical societies are typically more interested in historical works than a municipal library, but there are a number of local libraries that do maintain historical archives. Certain college and university libraries may also be interested. There are two important points to remember, however, when attempting to donate your research to a library. First, above all else, be aware that most libraries want organized, bound volumes that are well documented and likely to be of value to their members. (i.e., Don’t expect a library to be interested in a box of disorganized, uncatalogued papers, especially if they are merely family group sheets, pedigree charts and other personal notes.) Secondly, if your goal is entrust your research work to a library, you might find that it is necessary to break your collection into smaller parts and to spread those parts amongst different libraries. (i.e., The New England Historic Genealogical Society might be interested in artifacts and historical writings on your colonial Massachusetts ancestors, but they are less likely to be interested in information on your pioneer ancestors who settled in Oklahoma.)
Identify a Family Successor
Of course, even if you happen to donate copies of some of your materials to a historical library, if you are like most genealogists, you are hoping a member of your own family will volunteer to someday takeover your materials and continue on with your research where you leave off. If your goal truly is the preservation of your materials, however, this is not something you want to leave to chance after your death.
My suggestion would be to instead emulate what some of the best run corporations do. That may seem like an odd comment on the surface; but keep in mind that well-run companies are interested in preserving their corporate culture into infinity. And the leadership of such well-run corporations typically places the responsibility of succession on their own executives. That is to say, before someone can be promoted to the next level, managers of well-run corporations are expected to identify someone whom they feel would be an appropriate successor to take over their job.
In a similar manner, my suggestion to genealogists is that you proactively identify someone who would be both capable AND proud to take on your materials and work. As a word of caution, however, don’t assume that this individual will necessarily be one of your own children. It is natural to want to pass on old photographs and family artifacts to your own offspring; but doing so runs the risk that these artifacts won’t be safeguarded to your standards or, worse yet, that they would be passed on to yet other heirs who don’t value them at all. My challenge to you would be to instead find someone who shares your passion with history. Interestingly, this shouldn’t be as hard as it sounds. After all, similar personality traits typically do appear in families across multiple generations. Most often, though, they seem to appear in a cross-step fashion to nieces, nephews, and children of cousins.
Pass Materials on Before Your Demise
Regardless of who you identify as an appropriate successor to your materials and work, however, it is important to either pass these materials on before your ultimate demise or to make sure that this individual AND your immediate family members are in agreement as to what you wish to take place AFTER your death. And keep in mind that this isn’t just a matter of passing on the ubiquitous boxes that we genealogist all have. If you have electronic files, you need to plan for those as well. This will require passing on copies of those (hopefully organized) electronic files AND making sure that your successor also has access to your genealogy websites and online profiles and family trees. (i.e., Make sure that your successor knows of such online sites AND has the required passwords to take them over and maintain them!)
Disseminate Select Copies of Materials to all Family Members
If you are in agreement with me that passing on a legacy is more than simply passing on a list of who begat whom, then you will surely see the value in passing on multiple copies of your work. Today, there are so many options available for printing bound copies of photo books, genealogy books and other printed materials. Simply put, if it’s worth knowing, it’s worth printing and sharing. And if cost is a hindrance, don’t hesitate to seek donations, where appropriate, from other family members.
Don’t Overlook Your Own Story
Lastly, I encourage you to not overlook your own life story. If you are like me, you have struggled for years to put together some kind of understanding of who your ancestors were, how they lived, and what they believed. Would this task not have been easier if our ancestors had left us more information in their own words? Don’t leave your descendants in the dark about your own life. Write it down; and pass it on!
Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “How to Protect and Preserve Your Genealogy after Your OWN Death”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted April 28, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).