Preparing Your Family History Records For Hand Over in the Future

17 November 2019

Recent health issues have made me realise, more than ever, that if our family history is not well organised and compact then no one is going to want it. Having started way back in 1977 my records are a mix of paper and digital, there are books, genealogy journals, photos, negatives, albums, memorabilia, genealogy software and several laptops, hard drives, USBs, online trees and Cloud files. Not to mention social media and all those passwords.

I’ve lived in many places and prior to every move I have tried to downsize by giving away books and journals no longer wanted. Since my last move, I have made a serious attempt to reduce the number of filing cabinets and to start writing up draft family histories. As you would expect, over the last 40 something years, I have a wide range of recordkeeping that also reflects changing technology over that time.

My health treatment will last for at least the next 12 months. Perfect for a blog challenge and will give me a practical exercise to focus on and write about. At the end of the challenge I hope to have just about everything digital although there will always be paper copies of documents such as certificates and original photos and other items (with scanned images).

At the Waves in Time conference on the Sunshine Coast in May 2019, Barb Toohey gave an excellent talk on Who Wants My Records? Many of her suggestions I already follow but she made me realise that I need to be a lot more ruthless.

Our back bedroom is my study – it has bookcases on two walls floor to ceiling, two four drawer filing cabinets, 2 one draw filing cabinets and the built-in wardrobe has another bookcase and shelving for binders, photographs and albums. Then there is my work desk with four drawers and a folding table which simply seems to collect anything and everything. Every shelf is crowded and altogether would not fit into the boot of anyone’s car.

There are 12 months for this project – 12 goals? – What do I want to realistically achieve? My first 12 thoughts are (and in no particular order):

1 manilla folders in filing cabinets (paper information on families and correspondence)

2 genealogy journals some dating back decades

3 genealogy books and CD/microfiche resources

4 local history books and family history books

5 personal biographical folders (everything to do with my professional career over 40 years)

6 Family photographs and albums

7 written family histories (most families have a draft version that needs updating)

8 digital files (documents and photos) need tidying up

9 Cloud files need tidying, social media accounts, passwords, online trees

10 genealogy database – citations/sources vary over time with older research not as well sourced

11 family history binders (one for every immigrant couple and for primary families overseas)

12 that pile of unfiled records, emails, books and journals unread.

As well as my own family history, I have also traced my son’s paternal side although not to the same extent. Similarly, I have done my partner’s family history but his is mostly digital as I only started that in 2001.

Each of those 12 categories will probably take more than a month even working flat out. At this stage I think I will go for the most gain in the quickest time. This will probably involve making ‘simple’ decisions such as keep, give away or toss. Marie Kondo will be proud of me (and yes I have her book – picked it up for $1 in an op shop).

Or simply sorting boxes of photographs. For example, I now have all of Mum’s photos and albums but have not done anything with them in the last two years. Old genealogy journals I can pass on to my U3A family history students.

From previous project management experience, I know that I need to define the project, outline the tasks and assign time frames. Otherwise nothing will happen. To help me with this I am trying out Trello boards (free version). This allows me to define a project, list activities to be done, and to note progress and finalisation. What I have found so far is that this takes time but good planning up front always means that a project will progress more smoothly and successfully.

November is my planning month. Setting up the Trello board with tasks and activities. Then selecting something to tackle in December and the coming months. To avoid boredom, I will probably do a range of activities over a number of categories. This will be where Trello will be most useful – recording what is done and where I am up to in case it takes a while to return to a task.

Already I am starting to think this is a huge challenge but if I don’t start somewhere, then there is the chance that my work could be tossed out. Far better that I decide what to keep and where to leave it for future generations. Fortunately, the National Library of Australia archives both my website and my Diary of an Australian Genealogist blog. Both can be accessed via Trove and through the Internet Archive.

Finally I was going to do a mad tidy up in the study as it has got quite messy over the last couple of months with time away at hospitals and medical appointments. But staying true to the challenge, this post includes a few photos of what the study looks like at the start of this 12 month blog challenge.

Wish me luck!

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  1. So much to do…I can empathise even though I “only” have 30+ years of work. I recently read the book “Downsizing with Family History in Mind” and thought it was excellent. It’s be Devon Noel Lee and available via Gould Books, think, or ebook, good luck with the process! I’m looking to you for inspiration!

  2. Though I’m sure I don’t have anywhere near as much as either of you, I still have literally thousands of photos, plus lots of documents, from my Aunt’s estate to go through, as well as my own, my mother in law’s and bit by bit, some of Mum and Dad’s..
    My immediate task is to keep them in their own group as much as possible, scan as many photos as possible and continue to sort into sleeves what is to be sent on to cousins, and others who would like some shared. Once I get the latter sorted, then I’ll return to what I hope will be an easily followed trail for as many branches of the family as I can.

  3. Seems so many of us have the same problem. Tidy all our research up, collate photos, sort, keep, toss out.

    But what happens to all of our years of dedicated, painstaking and fascinating research knowing full well the next generation have no interest whatsoever in it?

    There must be a great number of us in this situation and I ask – Is there any place that will take the basic paperwork, certificates, and years of research to avoid it being taken to the rubbish tip when it is our turn to join our ancestors whose lives have enriched our lives over so many years?

  4. Good morning all. Take good care, Shauna. I’ll be following your journey. Ann, I have inquired of our local archives in the US where I was born and raised, and they are willing to take my binders and bins of family research. Still, I’d like to have some semblance of organization.

  5. I’m in the same boat. I started researching in 1976. Started writing my family history book in 2007 . It is finally finished I’m just making the final corrections and I should have book in hand by January. But I have all of those files all of those records tons and tons of stuff that I need to sort and organize. On top of that I am selling my house and moving. So it’s a good time to put things in order but it’s going to take a long time. Your office looks great. I have one room that I’ve used for the genealogy and then when I started writing the book I spread to another room. I know that right now there isn’t anyone in the family who would take everything but there might be some who will take different family records.

  6. You have a great plan. Like you I faced this situation last year and following surgery I began to sort through a mess of piles of genealogy gathered for about fifty years. I have sorted collections for others as well. My basic process is to get good storage totes and folders. Then every piece went into a folder for that family. Now I have four totes to work with. One for my most researched family, one for all my other ancestral families, one for client research and one for a major project I worked on for a local historical society. My goal for this year is to take one folder at t time and process it electronically and then toss what is no longer needed.
    When my mother passed away she left forty photo albums. I sorted those into albums that hold archival plastic sheets with acid free paper. Each page holds several picture with acid free corners for the pictures. If there is writing on the back I write it on the page under each picture or at least list the people in the pictures. Now there are ten albums. Then we met as siblings and people tagged the pictures they wanted copies of. I scanned and filed under each of their names those pictures. We ended up with over 200 pictures scanned and I gave each of them a copy of all of the files on a flash drive.
    While my health limits how much I can do, it feels great to be moving forward. My work for others gets less attention as I process my own collection. This is absolutely necessary. I wish you well on your own journey. It is not easy, but it is very rewarding!

  7. I started doing family history way back in 1975, so as you can imagine, I have a lot of paper files to be reviewed and then either scanned/transcribed or discarded. It takes ages to extract every bit of data from a document and enter it into genealogy software! I’ve done the certificates and wills, but there are many research notes that I made in Archives (from records that will never be on the Internet), plus family letters etc. Reading about your plan has made me even more determined to plod on with that. I hope you enjoy your sorting, and I wish you all the best with your medical treatment.

  8. Thanks Pauleen. I will look up that book, the more ideas the better.

  9. Good luck with your sorting Chris. At least I know that I’m not alone. Thanks

  10. Thanks Ann. By getting my research into a more manageable format and hopefully written family stories I’m hoping that the local family history society will be interested in the digital copies as they will be much easier to store. Plus I will pass on copies to extended family members too, and some of these I have discovered via DNA.

  11. Thanks Susan. Nice to know that someone will be following my progress. Gives me incentive to keep going and achieve my goal.

  12. Thanks Mary. I’m lucky to have the study just to myself. Good luck with finishing the book, that must be incredibly satisfying.

  13. Thanks Susan for the tips on the photo albums. So many of my grandmother’s photos were not identified and one of the issues with my own family digital photos is that I have not put everyone’s name eg I might have said Christmas 2012 Brisbane which tells me when and where but in future family members may not remember who was who. Definitely a big job the more I think about it.

  14. Thanks Judy. Plod on is a good way of putting it. The blog challenge is my way of motivating me to make a more determined effort. Hope to catch up with you somewhere.

  15. Thank you, Shauna, for the article and best wishes for your health treatment.

  16. That was an excellent blog Shauna, which resonates with all of us. I had to ‘de-clutter’ prior to moving to a new home with no study two years ago. Most of hubby’s and my books went to genie friends, GSQ or to Lifeline if not genealogy related.
    Having said that it’s been on my radar to go through all my 12 family arch lever binders and make sure everything in them is scanned (I think it is) and get rid of all the paper I don’t need, just keeping the original certificates.
    My FTM has everything in it and I’m hoping to interest a couple of family members into taking a bigger interest. Although they are not interested at this point, I do feel that both daughters may take it on if their cousins don’t. Hubby’s neice has dabbled in genealogy in the past so hopefully she will take on his ‘stuff’ which he considerably downsized prior to his passing.

  17. Thanks Bobbie for the tips. I should put more into my family history software (I use Legacy) but have not put any photos or scanned documents in yet.

  18. Good luck with both your health and the organization. So many of us relate to these issues. You are inspiring me to tackle my “mess” as well.

  19. Good wishes to you for your health and for the organisation. I also have heaps of things to sort out and decide whether to digitise it or to enter the data in to my genie software and get rid of the paper copy. [usually a photocopy or printout]
    I look forward to reading about your progress!

  20. Thanks Jackie for the feedback and good luck with your own ‘mess’.

  21. Thanks Edwina. The question to scan things is a big one because it takes so long – scan, name the file so that you can find it again and then file it somewhere or put it into your genealogy software. My digital filing system is not as consistent as it should be so another job there.

  22. Shauna
    I hope your health improves daily.It is a long process recovering from this ‘beast”.I have watched other friends endure the treatment.
    Ill be thinking of you
    Since we moved to Ballarat one of my cousins has produced a box of family photos with some of my mother, dec 1994, that i have never seen. Now we need to name everyone in these photos
    I am reading your blog with interest.I downsized a little when we moved but there is still much more to do


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