31 March 2020

The Joy of Genealogy?

These days people are saying that you could usefully spend your time in self-isolation or physical distancing by organizing your genealogy files and scanning paper files into a computer compatible format. That’s so that you can pass along comprehensive well ordered information on your family history to your sons, daughters, grandchildren and their descendants on down the line.

They might not want it?  Read on while I explain why that attitude makes sense.

There's nothing wrong with working on your family history. Organized files, colour coded, neatly arranged, certainly look satisfying on the shelf or in filing cabinets. Scanning things into computer files means you can dump all the physical research notes and non-archival materials. If that keeps you out of trouble and brings you joy so much the better, but don’t expect undying appreciation from subsequent generations. Why?

Look at it this way. What would be the consequences if each of your 2,048 10th great-grandparents had each prepared the type of collection you are working on now and passed it on through the generations to you? Let’s say they’d pared it down to 2,000 sheets of paper, the product of their in-depth research into all their previous generations. A typical banker’s box, 15" width x 12" depth x 10" height holds 2,000 sheets. So you'd been dealing with 2,048 boxes. Each is a bit over 1 cubic foot; you’re now dealing with 2,180 cubic feet of boxes -- more than will be held by all but the largest self-storage unit. The storage cost might be $250 per month. A typical box weighs 30 pounds, that’s 61,440 pounds for the collection — or 27 imperial tons (that's 31 US tons).

On top of that add biographical materials from each person in subsequent generations in your direct line, another 2,046 ancestors. I won’t do the calculation, the point is already made.

Even if your descendants could afford the storage would they likely want to dig through those tons of information?

Scanned into pdfs the material might be 4TB. That's a very rough estimate, it very much depends on the content, less if all text, more for high-quality images. That’s not unreasonable in these days of institutional petabyte storage, but would the descendants want to look through it all if not searchable?

If you wouldn’t want to take on the challenge of caring for those ancestral materials should you add to the burden of subsequent generations?

Yes, enjoy the challenge of the search. Recognize it’s for your own enjoyment. Just as with crossword puzzles, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying them — just don’t bequeath the completed ones to your descendants!

You may have already scoffed at the scenario painted above as it would require your parents to have duplicated each of the boxes they inherited as a gift to their children, as many copies as they had children. As your n-times great grandparents are in all probability shared with many many many descendants there would be a lot of duplicates being stored. The answer is sharing.

If you like the security of physical copies, no danger of an electromagnetic pulse frying computer storage, produce a book and place copies in a few libraries that accept genealogical materials. The cost will mean you’re careful to be selective. Or write articles for magazines or journals. Family history societies are always looking for content that they publish without charge to members, and you’ll have the advantage of editorial review. As many copies are produced there’s a good chance some will survive many years — there’s a term for that — LOCKSS — lots of copies keep stuff safe. The contents may well be kept by the PERiodical Source Index (PERSI) operated by the Allen County Public Library and available through Findmypast.

Online there are many options. You can produce your own family tree on most of the commercial genealogy sites specifying the level of privacy with which you feel comfortable. Just remember that complete privacy means the content will never be shared.

Consider the unified databases, an example is WikiTree: The Free Family Tree. LOCKSS applies so plan on adding information to more than one such site.

Enjoy the time you put in researching and documenting your family history; then think about how best you can help rather than impose a burden on the generations that follow.


Lynda said...

Well said, John. I've been thinking about this myself as I contemplate organizing my stuff and what my descendants might want to know. I've started sharing stories as I write them and have found a lot of interest, but generally, it's my enjoyment in doing the research that keeps me going. You've helped clarify this, so thanks.

jon said...

I had never considered the physical aspects you have figured. Gosh that is unmanageable. I do the daily cryptic crossword and do a bit of research, sometimes family history sometimes Google Challenge. Yesterday I discovered that 2 of my ancestral chaps in England appear have ties to slave ownership. As for doing it for religious reasons I have always thought that, god knows it all anyway. Perish the thought of having to spend eternity with my mother. I have been writing up some aspects for the mental exercise and some journals. Just for fun; you are right in that.

Unknown said...

I've been adding my family stories to internetarchive.org I am in the process of rewriting one couple's story now after finding new information. I will delete the story I have there for them and add this one in a few days.

Chuck Buckley said...

If you create a book about your ancestors be sure to donate an electronic copy to the local library in the area where others may follow in your footsteps many years from now. I have greatly appreciated the hints I have garnered from local library collections.

reflective thoughts by barbara said...

I decided a couple of years ago that my grandchildren would not want to know about 3000 descendants of their ggggrandparents. So I started the family stories of my husband and me. I plan to finish writing stories a few generations back then include the trees as a addendum. I share little tidbits with my grandchildren often. Any articles written are shared in several places like branch newsletters, facebook groups and my own blog. And to Evernote. Of course lots of photos and scanned documents so if originals get lost they are in the stories. 35 years of genealogy has been fun to me.

Eurekaro said...

Most of my research dates back 30 years or more and my "records" were in the form of a document containing facts and stories of each of our families. Details went into an annex to each of the family documents. I have gradually edited these documents and put the information into my Ancestry trees. The date on the trees and in my documents should be identical. My family documents fit into two large binders. Provided they didn't fade, and if the backup CDs are still readable in the future, they are not voluminous. These are my "secure" histories. I appreciate Ancestry but will they still be around say 25 years hence? Keeping in mind that all the original research I did was stored on floppies, using SAMNA word processor - non of which is readable today. Luckily I converted the info into Word later.