September Genealogy Blog Party: Prepare for Disaster & Preserve Your Family History

It’s time for Elizabeth O’Neal’s September Genealogy Blog Party and this month’s theme is quite timely, given how 2020 has moved along so far this year. Since this is National Preparedness Month, Elizabeth has challenged us to share ways in which we’ve either preserved family history items and/or prepared for disasters.

Actually, one of Randy Seaver’s Saturday Night Genealogy Fun topics in August was Your Disaster Genealogy Go Bag, which, in turn, was inspired by a post written by Jacqi Stevens on A Family Tapestry.

Since I’ve already written about my disaster genealogy go bag, in which I explained what genealogically-related items I would save with only 15 minutes of time, I’m instead going to share advice for preserving precious family history items.

Here is what has worked well for me, as I am only the CARETAKER of various documents and photos until they pass on to the next generation.

I’ve emphasized CARETAKER because it was a motivating force that pushed me to preserve all I have both archivally (paper items) and digitally. It meant a lot to me that several members of the generations before me gifted me with family photos dating back to c1850 and entrusted me with family documents well over 100 years old.

Those items had been lovingly cared for through the decades and I certainly didn’t want any disasters to befall them while in my own care.

Although scrapbooks, file cabinets and dark closets sufficed as preservation efforts in the old days, I wanted to be sure my own choices were up to 21st century standards.

First, let me share my digital efforts. My husband was my official genealogy scanner for many years. Although he scanned hundreds of pages for me, my family history treasure chest grew to include thousands of documents and images.

About five years ago, while at RootsTech, a start up company offering scanning services offered a great deal. When I got home, I began the massive job of taking every item out of my 40+ archival albums. I sorted them by size and labeled some items in pencil on the back. I then placed the paper items in groups into numbered envelopes.

I created a key for the scanners (who complimented me and said they had never had such a well organized job) so they knew whether the scanning in that group was single- or double-sided.

They returned everything back in the same envelopes I had sent them in so I was able to remount everything into the same places in the archival albums.

Even with a great price, it wasn’t a cheap endeavor because I had so many items, but it was worth every penny knowing that if a paper item was somehow lost or destroyed, there was a digital back up of it so it wouldn’t be lost to time.

If you haven’t yet begun digitizing your genealogy treasures, make a plan now! With Christmas coming, and covid-19 still with us, a great suggestion to your family members could be a request for a scanning gift certificate. Make sure you choose a reputable business to do the job if it is too big for you to handle at home.

Securing Digital Items

Have you backed up all of your digital images? If not, what will you do if your computer crashes or is damaged in fire or flood or tornado or ???

I am paranoid about backups and use several methods.

  1. Flash drive – This is great for transporting to libraries or on family visits. It is also a LAST RESORT back up because flash drives can and do fail.
  2. Hard drive – I have not one, but TWO, hard drives in my desk drawer, which I update a couple of times per year. I have post it notes on them with the date they were last backed up. However, if there is a house disaster, my hard drives are just as susceptible to ruin as my main computer.
  3. I use both IDrive and Backblaze to back my computer up in the cloud. I can’t see either company shutting down, but if that happened, it isn’t likely that both would shutter at the same time. I’ve never had to use either to recreate my files, but it is possible that a recreation might fail, too. Therefore, paranoid me uses both services.

What did I do with paper documents?

I have lots of pieces of paper in my family history collection. Some are sentimentally valuable and irreplaceable, which others are modern photocopies or vital records with official seals of transcribed records.

I have kept all of the original papers and documents – items like land deeds (I am lucky enough to have a couple of originals passed down in the family), vital records created at the time of the events, diplomas, handwritten family anecdotes, etc.

Through the years, I’ve collected or created thousands of pages of photocopies and genealogy notes. Photocopies fade to the point where they are unreadable and necessary genealogy notes have been typed into my RootsMagic program. Therefore, none of that paperwork needed to be kept. Faded deeds have been replaced with digital images found online and I have filled many trash barrels with no longer needed paper notes.

All of my ORIGINAL photos and documents, long before the era of scanning digital images, were mounted in archival quality acid-free albums.

An important detail to understand is that there is NO government regulation on use of the word ARCHIVAL.  Neighborhood stores didn’t carry these items back in the 1980s, but even if they had been on the shelves, I wouldn’t have trusted the safety and longevity of my century-old photos in those types of albums.

I sought out the Library of Congress and major universities to find out where they got their museum-grade supplies and went with University Products in Holyoke, MA. Another great company is Gaylord Archival. Museum-quality supplies aren’t cheap, but before you place an order, contact your company of choice and ask if there is a sale or discount available.

These products last for decades – I can vouch for that because I am using the same supplies I bought in the 1980s and 1990s and they are holding up well.

My albums, which also have protective jacket covers,  are stored in a closet so dust and light aren’t issues. I rarely take them out since I have digital images of everything if I need to look at a photo or record in my collection.

One more tip before I end – I keep all of my album items in ABC order by surname, then first name for the head of each family. Photos pertaining to children are placed in sections under the father’s name. When they become adults and have their own households, a new section is started for that nuclear family. Girls remain in their parents’ section until they have their own household. For unmarried children, who are then not my direct line, those items forever remain in the section dedicated to their parents’.

Example – Everything pertaining to my mother is filed under her father (Adams, Vernon Tarbox), including her military service, until my parents married. All photos and documents created after 6 June 1947 are filed under my father (Sabo, George Michael). Everything pertaining to my brother is also permanently filed under my father because my brother isn’t my direct line.

My cousins are filed under my grandfather, too, because our grandfather is our closest common ancestor and my aunts aren’t my direct line either.

I hope I’ve given you some ideas on managing your family history collection in the 21st century.

5 thoughts on “September Genealogy Blog Party: Prepare for Disaster & Preserve Your Family History”

  1. Wow! I am in awe of your amazing organizational and preservation skills. You have done an incredible job of saving your family’s past for future generations. I believe your descendants will be truly grateful for the time, effort, and expense you devoted to caring for yours (later, theirs) family history collection.

  2. Wow, what a massive undertaking! I need you to come to my house and get my family history organized and preserved, lol! Seriously though, I’m in the process of doing it myself, inspired partly out of fear of the California wildfires that seem to get worse each year, and partly because I don’t want to leave my daughter with a mess when I’m gone. It’s time-consuming and tedious, but must be done. Congrats on a job well done, Linda!

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