Protecting Your Genealogy Data, by George G. Morgan

July 16th was not a good day. As a Florida resident, I’m accustomed to a lot of unusual weather. During the summer, hurricane season is always on people’s minds, and there is usually a strong downpour every afternoon around rush hour. More often than not, the rain is accompanied by strong lightning and thunder. After all, whether you know it or not, Florida is the “lightning capital of the world,” with more direct strikes per square mile than anywhere else. As a result, Floridians must be more attuned to protecting their homes, appliances, and electronic equipment than most people elsewhere. Still, we all need to be conscientious about protecting equipment and data.

You have invested hundreds or thousands of hours in researching your genealogy and entering data into your computerized database. It doesn’t make any difference which program you use–Family Tree Maker, Roots Magic, Legacy, The Master Genealogist, PAF, or another program. The data you have so carefully and lovingly entered into your computer database is vulnerable to destruction or corruption by any of a number of perils. Here are a few tips to help you protect your investment of time, money, and research.

Simple Computer System Backups
There are essentially two types of backups you can perform on your own computer. One is a program backup. A program may offer to back up your data to a unique file on your computer, usually when you are shutting down the program. This only takes a few moments but, if your data gets zapped somehow, that backup can restore you to exactly where you were. I urge you to always take advantage of this type of backup. If a program does not offer a box to backup your files, go looking for it. Go to the FILE menu and look for ‘backup’ or ‘export.’ In a genealogy program, it’s often ‘export GEDCOM file.’

The other type of backup is a complete system backup. This means that you are physically copying everything on your computer somewhere else. You could back up the entire system (or specific areas) to CD or to another disk drive. There are numerous manufacturers of external hard disks today in various sizes, ranging from gigabytes to several terabytes. The prices of external hard drives are exceptionally good for the amount of data that you can store on them.

Moreover, they come with software that you can install and configure to cause a full system backup or an incremental backup (just those files that have been created or changed since the last backup) to take place on a specific schedule. This automatic, full-system backup becomes a “no-brainer” for you. If, in an emergency, you have to evacuate your home or office, simply unplug the external drive and take it with you. Western Digital makes a product called My Book, and it will work with any computer through a simple USB cable attachment. (Note, though, that there have been problems with their firewire cable connections.)

On-Network Backups
There are numerous companies now offering cheap and secure data backup services for your data on their computer servers. The advantages are pretty obvious. First, this is a very inexpensive way to back up your data. Second, when you sign up for the service, a small piece of scheduling software is installed on your computer that allows you to schedule the backup. Your choices usually include selecting one or more specific times to commence the backup, or you allow the software to back up your data after your system has been idle for some period of time, such as one-half of an hour or an hour. Second, your data is stored off-site–away from your physical facility. That means that the chances of disaster striking both places at once are minimized substantially. Some backup services even have multiple, redundant sites at which data is stored. That protects them and it doubly protects you.

One of the services that has become popular as a backup site is Mozy, an award-winning online backup service that is available through the Ancestry Store. For $4.95 per month, you can backup your entire computer, unlimited data size. You don’t have to be a computer expert. You simply go to the configuration screen, check the boxes next to the files you want to back up, schedule the times, and Mozy does the rest. Your data is secure at all times. That is because all files are encrypted on your computer with military grade, 448-bit Blowfish encryption. After the files are encrypted, they’re sent to Mozy’s world-class data center via a secure 128-bit SSL connection– the same type of encryption technology used for online banking. All encrypted data is stored on servers located in a locked room monitored by a 24/7/365 security team. You will definitely want to check out this option. also provides you with a backup option for your GEDCOM file. When you upload your GEDCOM file to create a personal Family Tree under the My Ancestry tab, you are storing a copy of your genealogical data on their computers. If you then use that online family tree as the place where you, and possibly other collaborating genealogists, enter your data, you always have the option under the ‘Manage Tree’ link to download a copy of a GEDCOM. This will contain all the changes and additions you have made to the data since you uploaded the original GEDCOM. The GEDCOM will not include the images you have linked from online image databases, photographs you have added, written stories, or recorded audio stories. However, you will have an up-to-date backup copy of names and dates to download to your computer and to import/open in your genealogy database program.

Two other ways to back up your genealogy database (and other collections of data) are to 1) create a GEDCOM file of your database and a compressed ZIP file for your photos, attach them to an e-mail, and send it to yourself–or perhaps to another family member; and 2) create the GEDCOM and ZIP files mentioned above, burn them to one or more CDs, and store them in a safe-deposit box or with someone you trust outside your home for safekeeping.

Don’t Lose It
Consider the grief and stress that you would experience if you lost your computer or your genealogy data. A little time invested in backing up your data will let you sleep a lot easier at night.

Happy Hunting!
George G. Morgan

AWJ Editor’s Note: In light of this past weekend, I am compelled to add a sad footnote to George’s column. I’d been “going to” download Mozy for some time, but other things kept taking priority. I kept telling myself I was too busy and that it would have to wait. Well, this week my computer started acting up. It spurred me to action, but unfortunately, Mozy wasn’t done downloading by the time I figured out that the cause of my problems was an external drive. It was too late. Mozy managed to save a few things from this drive, but I lost photographs and much more.

The drive was originally my backup, but as space was getting lean on my laptop, I began loading pictures and other large files exclusively to the backup drive. I was fortunate that I have shared pictures with family and that my husband and daughter also have copies of many pictures on their computers, but there are probably quite a few that are gone for good.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Whatever backup method you choose, do it now. If you think you’re busy now, think of how busy you’ll be trying to restore and recreate all that you’ve lost.

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Listen to The Genealogy Guys Podcast each week for fun, entertaining, and informative genealogy discussions. George’s new book, The Official Guide to, is now available from his company’s website, Aha!
Seminars, Inc.
 and is personally autographed by the author.

21 thoughts on “Protecting Your Genealogy Data, by George G. Morgan

  1. Both stories hit me, because on the night of the Fourth of July, a stray bottle rocket entered my garage and started a fire that consumed garage (two vehicles and all of the things that get stored in a garage, including two sets of golf clubs), the laundry, the kitchen, part of the living room and part of another room.

    Fortunately, it happened when we both were awake and could get out, also my computer with all of my research and tips was at the far end of the house. However, the smoke from the fire and all of the plastic in cars and storage may have damaged the computers to an unknown extent.

    Advice: take a Saturday afternoon and make photos of everything you own, burn a CD, and send it to a relative or put in in a safety deposit box. Back up your computer(s) and get that out of the house, too. It is no fun trying to recreate what you owned for your insurance company.

    Charlie Brown

  2. I’ve been wondering about an online backup for all my stuff. My Norton 360 does to a back up to another hard drive connected to my computer BUT if something such as lightning etc. were to hit, everything, internal and external, would be fried.

    Thanks George for writing this article. It brings the necessity of backing up to an online website to ‘relevant’ levels. I also like the idea of gedcom-ing and zipping photos to your email where you can keep them. Perhaps someone could answer this question for me: my program that I use is Family Tree Maker. Would I lose any info by doing a gedcom and emailing it? Is there a way that I could send my FTM file, complete with pictures, zipped, to an email and then unzip it?

  3. With all due respect, and appreciation for the suggestions offered, they are inadequate. With all the photos, stories, audio stories, pdf files, and links one posts on the site in order to maintain and share family history, should (and ultimately must) make available a way to save or backup all data posted to the site, including audio stories and related linked files. If one cannot download or extract the material posted to, and organized on,, the site becomes a risk, rather than an asset. Ultimately, Ancestry ought to go much further, even allowing one to print a book containing all the information one has posted to one’s tree on the site.

  4. I am in the process of scanning all of my documentation and anything that is not in a genealogy data bases. That way I can make backups of the softwear data, the scanned files, and anything else on CDs or DVDs. That way I can leave copies off site at my kids houses. That would be a lot easier than trying to get a filing cabinet out of a burning building. I also make copies of everything on external drives.

  5. Thanks for the reminder. I have been backing up my files on a monthly basis, however I have become a little complacent lately.
    One quick aside. Do you use the “Spell-Checker” feature when you are through typing your article? “Lightening” not once but rwice.

  6. All good ideas. I have a google account as you see by my address. Google has a free program Picasa2 which I can scan to or download my camera, and edit the pictures. It is very easily sent to my personal Google Web page, e-mailed, printed, etc. This website is by invitation only so I can share all my genealogy pictures or any pictures with family. It is free and easy to use.

  7. very informative for how to and products available to do backups. I do not have any of my data on my computer since I just got it recently. It is all on Family Group sheets and copies of records and I can see that I have a big job ahead of me. Thanks

  8. Thanks for this article! I have begun researching my children’s Martin ancestry line again (taking up from where I left off 3 yrs. ago) and have come across so much more. And you are right It would be a real loss to me to lose any of this data. My “burner” is on the bum, but I’m glad to read about “Mozy”.


  9. Unfortunately we in Alabama, Miss & Lousianna learned a hard lesson about backing up our work in August 2005. It’s name was Katrina. Back up everything and if you have other family interested in family history burn it to a cd and give them copies.

  10. I know it will sound ‘old-fashioned’ but maybe it would be good to back up computer files with hard copies as well! Just a thought!

  11. Commenter #5: believe it or not, ‘lightening’ might not come up in a spell check because it IS a word. (has to do with childbirth though, not thunder… but some women would beg to differ on that 🙂

  12. Digital media and storage is convenient, but I want a hard copy of everything I have. Paper does get cumbersome, but to recreate what has taken years to amass and compile, and in many cases likely can’t be easily recreated, if at all, is not a loss any of us can afford.

    Paper duplicate copies, CD data copies, and backup hard drives are a must. Some external drives even have two drives in them!

    Thanks for bringing the story here. Everyone needs to be reminded of the lurking peril of catastrophic data loss. No one ever plans it.

  13. I work in the computer repair industry, and every day deal with customers who have “lost” their hard drive in one way or another. Data can be recovered, but costs between $250 and $1600…some places more!

    Hard copies are good, but don’t save you from a disaster such as Katrina or a fire. When we think of “disaster recovery”, think not only of what is on your computer, but what you have in your home that is not replaceable; pictures, documents, slides, movies, etc. It is a good idea to have copies of these things outside your home…outside your state perhaps (such as in the case of Katrina). I can replace much of what is in my home, but for those that I cannot, I have taken it upon myself to scan and preserve these types of documents in such a manner that they will not be lost.

  14. Learning to “backup” needs to become a habit. Like many people above I try not only to backup on a regular basis but to provide DVD copies to my son and daughter at specific intervals (with the dates on each disk. At home I keep a copy on my files/photos on my laptop and a hard drive as a secondary.

    If any of this seems a waste of time just think about what you would feel if a Katrina or fire laid waste to all your work.


  15. A very thought-provoking article on the need to back up your data on a regular basis. Unfortunately, this article (and most other articles that describe on-line data storage) does not address the potential risk of identity theft.

    I am reluctant to place financial data, investment data, or genealogical data (all of which expose us to identity theft) in an on-line data base.

    I understand that the data transmission is encrypted. However, about once every three months there is another story about how personal data, financial data, credit card data, and even Social Security Numbers in bank, government or retail company computers were stored on a lap-top computer which was stolen. Everyone listed in each of those stolen data bases was exposed to identity theft.

    Until I can be convinced that the threat of having my data stolen from an on-line data base does not exist, I will back up my computer onto an external hard drive and/or onto DVDs.

  16. I agree on the need for frequent back ups, but the reason that I clicked on this site, was that it was entitled “protecting your genealogy”. There was a blurb on the radio today about “MonsterJobs” being hacked into, and over one million data bases were compromised. I am very concerned about identity theft. I’ve been entering folk’s birthdays, mother’s maiden names, etc., without a thought about identity theft, and now that I think about it, I’m very concerned that I’m placing others at risk by even using this web site. What is doing to protect against identity theft?

  17. When we are offred the ability to print a particular article, it would be nice not to also have to print three (or more) pages of comments which are also attached to the article.

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