Posted by Juliana Szucs on November 18, 2013 in Ask Juliana, Research

As a life-long Midwesterner, I know that when the weatherman puts you in a high-risk zone for dangerous weather, you pay attention. It’s gonna get ugly. So yesterday morning when I woke to that big red high-risk bubble over Illinois and Indiana, I knew we had to hit the ground running. The little closet in the basement (our small, but concrete surrounded safe room) had to be cleared of storage stuff so that three humans, four dogs and a cat could fit in there if needed. The Emergency kit needed to be checked. The calls for high winds meant that everything in the yard needed to be secured or stored. Preparations needed to be made in case of a power outage. And all needed to be done by noon when the weather was predicted to get heavy. So much to do, so little time.

As the sirens sounded, I ran around grabbing things like my purse and charged cellphone, I glanced around my office. What about the Howley tintypes? They’re in the Howley binder, but no time to grab them. What about all the other original photos I have? They’re all in separate binders. There was no time.

We headed for the basement, with dogs and cat in tow. As we sat there listening to the wind and rain lambasting my house, I was grateful to have my husband and daughter with me and worried about family and friends who were also in the path of the storm. But my thoughts kept turning to those pictures. And what about the box of photos I recently ran across from when my daughter was little, that I still have not scanned?(I know, I should know better.) So many precautions that I know I should have taken, but didn’t.

As I was going through the pre-storm preparations, there were a lot of other families going through the same ritual. I was one of the lucky ones. When the sirens stopped and the winds died down, we came up to find our lives unchanged. Others weren’t as lucky.

Some lost loved ones, and even more came up to find their homes, their belongings, and their family treasures all gone. This morning’s news showed photos and documents belonging to people in the affected areas turning up in yards up to 100 miles away. (Friends in Indiana and Illinois, if you find any of these personal effects, there is a Facebook page set up where you can post images of documents, photos, and even pets that have been found. Just be sure to block out personal information like Social Security numbers and don’t post sensitive documents.)

It was a wake-up call. Sure, I go through periods where I do back-ups, but as I think about it now, there are some clear holes in my disaster plan. Here are some things to consider in preparing your family history for a disaster.


One thing at the top of my list is to gather the really important treasures (like those tintypes my mom recently gave me for our Howley ancestors) in one archive-quality box. I don’t want to store these things in my basement. It’s unfinished and temperature and humidity conditions are more stable here in my office. It’s going to mean prioritizing, but I can easily grab one box and take it with me when a disaster is threatening. Much easier than going through all of my binders looking for treasures. Now’s the time to do that prioritizing. Not in the hours before a storm.

Digitize with High-Resolution

I do have high-resolution TIFF images of treasured family photographs and documents backed up to an online storage service. Copies of records and photographs can also be found in my online tree, although at a lesser resolution. I should make sure that I have everything saved at that higher resolution.


Another step I need to take is to share copies of the high-resolution pictures and documents with families on DVD so that there are more copies floating around. That way even if the real thing gets destroyed, the image isn’t lost forever.

Get Scanning

I need to get scanning. While I do have a lot of pictures in digital form, when I was cleaning out my bedroom closet recently, I found the aforementioned box of old pictures that need scanning. Hmm, perhaps this would be a good job for the teenager who’s always in need of cash.

Take Stock

It’s probably time to do an audit of what I have, and on what medium. Also, how long ago were the back-ups created? Depending on use and the quality of the medium, images saved with technology in common use even 10 years ago may be at risk. I also want to think about how easy it will be to find technology to read that medium down the road. (Think floppy disks. Enough said.)

Time to Get Started

The time to get started is now. Who knows what the future has in store? As I go through things and make sure I have good quality scans, once they’re backed up online I can start saving them to DVDs for family. And with the holidays around the corner, that will be a good time to share them.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of those who were affected by the storm.

What is your disaster plan? Please share your ideas in the comments.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 20 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Kirk Sellman

    Upload pictures, documents and information to as many genealogy websites as possible. Companies do go out of business and you don’t want to count on one site to be around for your gr-gr-gr-gr-grandchildren to see that one-of-a-kind picture of your gr-gr-gr-gr-grandmother.

  2. Esther Dunlap

    Very well said. We learned the hard way, after losing my parents very large wedding photo and other important things in a house fire, to back everything up in more than one physical location. I tell everyone now to scan anything important and make sure you have multiple copies in several locations so you don’t lose something so treasured forever.

  3. Jan

    I have had old pictures duplicated and have mailed them to two cousins. Now we have them in Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota.

  4. Lois

    Very timely…an excellent reminder of how fast things can be lost. We live in the Midwest and spent some of Sunday afternoon in the basement. Fortunately, we are safe and sound, but we never know what could happen. Thanks for reminding us to be ready.

  5. Janet

    Excellent article. I’ve been in the process the last several months of scanning everything I have. I plan to make copies and scatter them around the country and even outside the country should anything happen to the originals.

  6. Kyle

    I’m scanning, but pictures without captions are useless to future generations. What is the best program to use so I can identify the people, place, year, and/or event in the picture? I’d hate to rely on a separate paper to add to the DVD with a list of picture contents. Any suggestions?

  7. Becky Dreger

    Very well said.
    Esther Dunlap said she and her family learned the hard way, the value of backing pictures. It reminded me of the need to back up my wedding pictures, and other valuable pictures.
    So sorry for your loss, Esther.

  8. Judy Carr

    Do not depend on a fire safe to survive a fire. We lost our home in the Texas widfires. We had just left the house so did not get a chance to grab anything. Our fire safe could not be found since it burned so badly. Even our neighbor’s huge gun safe did not survive…. Although I had a lot scanned, I had even more un-scanned – including hand written notes and cards I had saved from deceased relatives. SCAN, SCAN, SCAN…. then save in the cloud and share.

  9. Laura

    Kyle what I do is name file (photo) by the persons first and last name . Then I make sub files with that family last name.

    I have also decided to open a safe deposit box at my bank. I am going to scan photos and save a back up copy in that box. I also will share with family but having it in a bank deposit box is also a safe way of keeping copies on disk or flash drive. Flash drives are so small and have so much room you could easily scan copies of photos and important documents and keep them there for safe keeping.

  10. Ann

    I have my records on 3 different external hard drives and on 2 different off-site backups, in addition to 2 online versions. 3 family members, in 3 different states, have hard copies.

    Above all else, do NOT rely on a single website for your records. I have cousins who only put their records on a single (unnamed, but I bet you can guess) website and keep NO records in any other manner. DON’T!

  11. Cindy Brown

    Great article, mind if I copy it to return to to get everything done. I have all my family’s info done in four sets, I have one, one is at my mom’s, and ones each of my brothers, so they’re spead out. but I do need to make dvd’s of everything and send them out. I’ve backed all of it up on a couple sites.

    Kyle…. I know mine’s an old version, but Broaderbund Photo Print Shop gives you the ability to make copies of photos or documents and input over the photo, Dates, Names and other onfo you want added, so it’s on the front of copies so future generations know who or what their looking at.

  12. Marilyn

    Kyle: I use a freeware program called PICASA (hope I can mention that on here) to label my scans. It is easily downloaded and simple to use and also has basic photo editing, such as contrast, color, etc. The ABC icon lets you type anywhere in any color on your scanned image. I scan a batch and then do a copy/paste for each image, so one is labeled and one is original. I also scan the backs of photos if there is any info at all on them- even if it’s just the photography studio’s logo as in many of my late 1800’s photos, that gives me the city they were in at the time.

  13. GIF Ted Juan

    You are all resourceful and have found very creative ways to share and protect your valuable treasures. My uncle (who looks like JR Ewing) likes photos and I need to give him a buzz and share some of this knowledge with him.

  14. Su Lynn Hanson

    Could you please define high resolution….have seen different parameters. Thanks, fabulous article!

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