Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Up In Smoke

Hi everyone. Well today I will tell you what I found in that letter that I wrote about in my last blog that was so heartbreaking. This was a letter to my mom from a cousin in 1996. My moms cousin wrote that their great grandfather (my great, great grandfather) kept everything in the way of paperwork. Wow, talk about a great genealogical treasure! When my moms great grandfather died it was passed down to her grandfather. When he died an aunt took everything and then when that aunt died the cousins inherited everything. So far, so good. This great treasure is almost down to! But wait, those cousins weren't interested in all that paperwork and they decided to burn everything! Can you believe it? I cried the first time I read that. I would have given my eye teeth to have had all that paperwork. My great grandfather owned a pub just down the road from where Charles Dickens had grown up and was also granted the Freedom of the City. I wonder what gems may have been found amongst all those papers that ultimately ended up in smoke.

Have you caught your breath yet? Go ahead, take some time to wipe away those tears. What a tragedy it is when something like this happens. Some of you may have experienced something similar. But, has this made you think about what will happen to all the paperwork you are gathering as you work on your family history? What will happen to all the hours and hard work you have put into your family line? How will you ensure a future descendant doesn't burn all of your paperwork? It is sad to say that not everyone shares our genealogical passion and consequently we cannot guarantee that our future descendants will want all of our paperwork. However we can organize in a way that will hopefully ensure the more important papers will survive.
  1. The most important documents in genealogy are vital records - birth, marriage and death certificates. I keep these in an archival safe binder separate from all my other paperwork. I also include copies of Parish Registers. The binder is clearly labeled with its contents and I have added a sticker that says "Important Documents - Do Not Destroy". I am hoping that this will prevent any descendants from destroying these. I have also scanned all of these certificates and keep them on a DVD which I store in a different location as back up.

  2. Next I keep all other important genealogical documents such as wills, property deeds, military papers, citizenship papers and school records in a separate archival safe box. I have these papers organized by surname and again I have the box clearly labeled with its contents. I do not have a "do not destroy" sticker on this box. I will leave this decision up to my descendants although I do hope they will see the importance of these documents and decide to keep them and pass them on. I haven't yet scanned these documents and put them on DVD but I do intend to do that in the near future.

  3. I have two scrapbooks for my family history story. One for my husbands side of the family and one for my side. I will elaborate in a later post how I organize these and the type of album I like to use. I do not use original one-of-a-kind heritage photographs in these scrapbooks, I have copies made for the scrapbooks. I keep my original heritage photographs in a 3-up acid-free Pioneer Album and I have a note included that states that these are "One-of-a-Kind Heritage Photographs" and "Do Not Destroy - Keep in the Family". I have most of these pictures scanned onto DVD and stored off-site for backup. I hope that my descendants will want to keep the scrapbooks and possibly continue adding to them and passing them down. If, for some reason, they do not want the scrapbooks at least the heritage photographs should survive.

  4. I have one large "Research Binder" where I keep my Family Record Sheets (printed from my Family Tree Software) and behind each Family Record Sheet I have copies of all the supporting documentation. The reason I keep a printed record is because I don't want a descendant to inherit the Family Tree Software but not be able to read it. Technology changes so quickly and if a couple of generations passes before someone decides to carry on with the research it is a real possibility that their technology may not be able to read our DVD's. As long as no one destroys this binder the information will always be available to whoever wants it.

  5. The remainder of my research and notes are stored in binders, drawers and files. I have a filing system that works well for me and I'll elaborate more on that in future posts.

As you can tell there is a large accumulation of paper and although everything is well labeled and organized I sadly realize that it is a real possibility that my descendants may have no interest in keeping all of this work, or they just may not have the room to store it. By carefully keeping original vital records and one-of-a-kind photographs separate I am hoping that these will make it down the line for sure. They basically consist of one binder and 2 photo albums right now. I am also hopeful that my 2 scrapbooks and research binder will also make it down the line. My system is not perfect but hopefully not everything will end 'up in smoke'

I know this is hard for us passionate genealogists to think that someone may literally burn up all of our hard work but the reality is there. Take some time to think about how you keep your genealogical records. If something happened to you today would your descendants be able to identify the really important documents that should be kept from the records that perhaps are not so important to someone not as passionate as us. Or is there the possibility that a descendant could look at all that paper and think "I'm not interested in this" or "I don't have the space to keep this" and destroy everything, including vital records and photographs without even realizing it? If so, take some time today to rethink how you keep and organize your records. Don't let all of your hard work go 'up in smoke'.

Thanks for stopping by.


  1. My tearful case is that when I was in high school, my mother and I lived with another woman, one of my mother's co-workers, in her house. Also living there, in a garage apartment, was another woman. This latter person decided one day that she wanted the storage space mom was using to store some family items, including my father's U.S. Navy service record -- his personal copy -- and other items. So she threw all of these things out, without saying a word to us! If she'd only said something, I had plenty of space in my room and would have been glad to take custody of the items. It is still a bitter pill to swallow that someone else's arrogance and thoughtlessness cost us some valuable documents.

    Another recourse for protecting and preserving your important genealogical papers and photos is to donate them to your local genealogical society. I am the historian of the Southern Genealogist's Exchange Society, and we are always glad to accept the papers of members and non-members alike. That's where mine are going. If my descendants want to access them, they'll have only to go to the SGES headquarters.

    Good post, and I am so sorry that the papers got destroyed. (hug)

  2. Can you share where you found those 3-up albums? How many photos will it store? Can you add extra pages? This album could be the solution I need to get my grandmother to store our family's heritage photos!