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.
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 Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org, 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 Ancestry.com, 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.