This is a guest post by Denise May Levenick, The Family Curator

If genealogists share one common research goal, it’s to insure that the ancestral relationships and stories they’ve learned are passed on to future generations. And with each passing birthday, dedicated researchers may become more worried about the future of their genealogical legacy.

Not long ago, genealogists had limited options for securing the future of their research. The family historians in my family were good at collecting information, but not nearly as good in writing up their findings. On my mother’s line, their work consisted of loose letters, photos, and scribbled notes and was passed on from mother to daughter for four generations. You may have a few of these family historians in your pedigree.


This digital image of my ancestor Samuel Chamblin is at least a fourth generation photograph. The original has been lost, but a 19th century cabinet card copy and a 20th century black and white print were found in a family collection. Duplicate originals and widespread sharing can help photos like these survive through over time.
This digital image of my ancestor Samuel Chamblin is at least a fourth generation photograph. The original has been lost, but a 19th century cabinet card copy and a 20th century black and white print were found in a family collection. Duplicate originals and widespread sharing can help photos like these survive through over time.

On my dad’s line, family history is brief and concise, existing as notes and captions in a few neatly composed photo albums. I feel fortunate to have inherited these bits and pieces from earlier generations, but I do wish they had taken time to write the documented family history we aspire to today. And it’s a bit scary to know that I’m the sole repository for all the raw data buried in these singular pieces of paper. If I don’t untangle the stories they may be lost forever.

My mother-in-law was also a family historian, but she took a different approach. As a business secretary since the early 1920’s, she mastered the finer nuances of carbon paper, mimeograph machines, and later photocopiers. Her family history research is neatly typed, profusely duplicated, and has been spread far and wide throughout friends, family, and anyone with a remote interest in the family line. It’s not surprising I meet people who know more about the family than I do. And this is mostly due to her widespread sharing.

Today, the internet is an even better distribution network than carbon paper or mimeo machines. My mother-in-law would have loved uploading photos and family stories to or, and she would have enjoyed connecting with cousins and other family members and sharing their stories with her children.

Online share sites are so easy to use that we sometimes forget that the information we view as a logged-in user is not visible to everyone. Living persons names and information are always presented as “Private” or “Living” to protect personal identity. And membership sites add another layer of protection. Yes, registration, user names, passwords, and subscription fees can be burdensome; but they also help protect our information.

I’m trying to follow my mother-in-law’s lead and share one-of-a-kind photos where others can find them, but the historian in me wants documentation to follow along with that photo, wherever it may go. It’s simple to add a few lines of metadata identifying the photo subject and yourself as the current photo owner. If you’re unsure how to do this, check out the step-by-step guide in my recent post How to Add Photo Metadata Without Special Software, or read more in How to Archive Family Photos.

Some researchers are reluctant to post items from personal collections online because they don’t like the idea that others might copy photos or information to sloppy undocumented family trees. And that happens. But, because photographs are powerful memory-catchers, they also work as fabulous cousin bait.

I recently stumbled on a tree with a lovely portrait of my father-in-law’s mother, and contacting the owner led to a new cousin connection and full-resolution images of several other photos, not online. When I thanked her for sharing the photos at, her simple reply brought home the real value in sharing research. She said that she posted those photos online so others could find them and remember. Sharing widely is another way to backup your research, and help your family history survive the test of time.

About the author: Denise May Levenick is the author of How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally and writes frequently about family photos and projects at The Family Curator.


  1. F. Pinn

    I”ve been doing family genealogy for a long time. My problems with posting pictures is that I’ve found them on other sites where the people haven’t done any research and there is no real connection to there family. This can slowly destroy all the research you’ve done by sending out incorrect information to others onto the internet.

  2. Cindy

    I have to agree with F. Pinn’s comment. I had the exact same experience early with my public trees and although I wanted to share my family’s story, I quickly switched my trees to private. Now I can add 20 photos of Great Grandpa if I have them. My trees still work as cousin bait. Have met several verified distant relatives and we share!

  3. Janis Shaffer

    I agree with the two comments above. I have had pictures copied to the wrong person entirely. Some researchers, and I use this term loosely, think if the first and last name matches it is their relative. Once the picture is copied you can’t seem to get the researcher to correct it. Now I only have proven relatives view my page and ask that they ask before copying pictures. I think it is important to initiate a dialogue before copying research. It offers a respect to the originator of the research for their hard work and documentation.

  4. Tiffany

    It’s true what the others have said, but I think the benefit of the many cousins I have found far outweigh me being so protective and territorial over images. And I am a photographer so I do understand being territorial over images. But, the connections I have made are priceless to me.

  5. Paul

    My only problem with saving your family history on-line, is it will only stay on-line as long as the company that has the server survives. You need to do much more than that. Make a CD for each family member, make a copy for the genealogy society in your area, maybe keep a copy at the court house. We just need to use our imaginations on all the various ways to save and pass down to our descendants.

  6. KT

    Do you really think ancestry’s trees disappear? They are so big and useful, surely some other company will buy the info. I don’t have any ancestors, so have thought about ways to save the info I have accumulated for future amateur historians. Any better way than ancestry?

  7. Melanie

    I have found the same problem but I also think the benefits outweighs the negative. I have had my research downloaded to the wrong family lines too. It is frustrating when someone does not care about the documentation as I do. It is important to share because some family lines, for whatever the reasons, did not get the family bibles, pictures and oral histories of our families. I am one of those family lines, so I make sure I share with all. You just never know what budding genealogist will get this information. I met my long lost cousin who shared information in 2000 which began my journey to discover “who were the people before me”. One of my concerns is who will be the custodian of my lives work in my family because I am just the beginning.

  8. Lydia

    One way to address the problem of erroneous copying of photos is to be sure you include metadata (source, context, etc.) in the Details frame that can be called up to the right of the photo. Unfortunately, this morning I checked one of my photos that I know was saved to several other people’s trees, and found that the metadata had not carried over. I doubt that the re-posters had deleted it. This is something that Ancestry should try to fix, to carry the identifying info. for photos throughout their journey through the family trees.

  9. Garth

    Lydia…adding text to the description box is not adding metadata, although a strict interpretation of the word could call it that. Adding metadata as the post suggests is adding data to the photo itself. Whenever the photo is downloaded, copied, transferred, etc. the metadata goes with it. It is possible for somebody to open the photo and strip the metadata but if they are going to go to that much trouble then they wouldn’t listen to logic anyways. Another method to ensure description data is to open the photo in an image editor and actually add a text caption to the photo itself. This takes effort and work and most people don’t or won’t do it. The only way for someone to get rid of the caption is to manipulate the image themselves or crop the text caption out.

  10. Garth

    KT… yes, Ancestry’s data could be lost if they went out of business. Thete are numerous examples of web sites that went defunct taking users data with them. FamilySearch is probably an example of a tree system that will never be lost but the data you add is not “yours” so any user can revise the tree. And by the way…you clearly do have ancestors. I think you meant to say descendants. I would suggest the best way to sae your research for future generations is to publish it and donate copies to several reputable libraries and family history organizations.

  11. Tonya

    I use the Ancestry more as a tool to find and file like information and then incorporate it into my offline records. I love paper for the important things . I sometimes save a photo to the “wrong person” because the person in the photo is known to me through the person in my tree I attached them to. I’ve not found a quick and easy way to clarify that. I use a Mac and most of the time an iPad or iPhone. sometimes i save them to research further and am not sure. That was before they added the “Maybe” feature recently, but have to grandfather that in. That’s why it’s not my official tree tracker. I learned a lot from this article and everybody’s comments. Thank you!

  12. I have no issues with sharing my genealogy research with anyone who is interested and have ‘met’ many distant cousins researching some of the same family lines that way. You never know when you might stumble across the one branch of the family who inherited all the family pictures and the family bible! And if my research helps someone else researching their family, then I’m more than happy to have helped, although I would hope they would get in touch so we could compare notes.
    I do often think about what will happen to my family research when I’m gone though and I like Garth’s idea of publishing it, both for my own family and to donate to appropriate libraries and societies. Like many genealogists though, I’m waiting until I’m ‘done’ which we all know will never really happen. Maybe it’s time I made a start on putting it all together.
    Thank you for a thought provoking article!

  13. Lydia

    Garth — Thanks for the clarification. (As you may have guessed, I’m used to “metadata” as applied in a descriptive setting.) For ease of viewing by others, it looks as though captioning is perhaps the way to go if one is really concerned about the matter. (I still think it would be useful for descriptive info. to accompany the photo, however.) And a general comment on preserving one’s research and family history — I don’t know about you folks, but I’ve accumulated way more info. and documentation than could possibly be accommodated on, and since nobody else in the family is half as interested in genealogy as I am, you bet I’m planning (eventually) to offer it to a few logical repositories, a couple of which I already have friendly relations with.

  14. The comment about posting photos because you share so others can remember is why I post photos to Ancestry. I have had some of the ones I post added by others claiming to be original poster. I don’t care. I posted so others could see a relation. I feel it is selfish to not post just because you think someone will repost a photo as theirs.

  15. Jill

    It feels a little strange when I see photos from my family collection pop up on other people’s trees, but I remind myself how much I treasure photos of my ancestors that other people have made available to share. Some of these exchanges of photos have led to online conversations and even meetings with long-lost cousins. I don’t think it’s wise to be too possessive about this information. Ancestry is a very powerful crowd-sourcing opportunity that is adding hugely to the knowledge we have about our past. It certainly is misused by careless “researchers” who don’t do their homework. It would be helpful if the original contributor’s identity could be somehow “welded” to the fact or photo they have added. That would make it much easier to check the source and reliability of information that comes to us in hints. It would also be helpful if the Ancestry software would allow us to indicate material that is tentative or hypothetical to in a way that would be clearly visible on “tree hints”. This might reduce the amount of erroneous information that can spread like a virus through even the most carefully tended trees.

  16. Sharon

    I love Ancestry and I share everything I can if a house burns down or tornado hits.People are so kind to help get irreplaceable info and pictures back.So please keep sharing .

  17. Lydia

    Jill — When one clicks on a photo, the informational sidebar to the right does say “originally posted by [Ancestry username]”, which would seem some guarantee of authenticity. The origin of a fact, however, I agree certainly can be elusive, and even if known doesn’t necessarily say much about its authenticity. Somebody (presumably not a close family member) found a death record for a woman with the same name as my grandmother, and had her dying in Anchorage instead of Seattle, and in the year after her actual death and burial. This error was then copied into several other trees, and when I looked at them, everybody seemed to have copied from everybody else’s tree. Sigh. I guess the best we can do is carefully tend and document our own trees and hope the cream rises to the top.

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