Your Genealogical Legacy

By Ian Sewell

This article was published in the December 2017 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

In October I attended a conference with the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) and one thing we talked about was the preservation of our data.
As someone in IT and who has taken over a position in the society that has many records, this topic is of particular interest to me. In the following article, I will look at three aspects: ensuring your data will be preserved, the safety of your computer and backing the data up.

  1. Ensuring your data will be preserved
    Many of us have huge amounts of data both offline (on our computers) and in our paper records and we are always actively gaining more but what will happen to this when we die? If you have someone in your family who is also interested in this area then that is good but many of us do not. Even your partner may not share your interest and will be at a loss as to what to do. It would be a shame for all that information to end up in a skip because no one knew what to do with it. There is no simple answer to this issue but there is much you can do to help:
    Investigate. Ask around and find who might be interested in parts of your data. One name societies like ours would clearly be interested but there are also local and county societies who also may be interested.
    Organise. Whilst we may be researching our family up multiple lines it is doubtful that any successor /group will have the same interests as yourself. Take the time to split your research in your name groups. This will make it easier for others to pick up what they are interested in rather than dumping a huge amount onto one person who may be only interested in one of your names.
    Inform. Having done all this work, it’s not much use if you don’t tell anyone! So, commit the contact details of interested parties to paper and put this with your will. It does not have to be part of it but keeping all such information together if just another way of making it easier.
  2. How safe is your computer?
    We all use a computer to a lesser or greater extent to store our data and of course this will always be available for us or others to look at, right? Unfortunately not. I have had a few discussions lately with members who are having problem with their computers and software and I am afraid the answer is always the same, you cannot sit still, you must keep upgrading. Our computers are made up of three components: the actual hardware of the machine, the operating system running on this hardware and the specific software we are using. All three have to ‘play nice’ for us to use the computer:
    Hardware. As someone who started using punch cards (and no it’s NOT that long ago!) I have seen a tremendous change in PC hardware. Just think about how old your PC is compared to say, your car or television? Although old, Moore’s Law, which states that chip power will double every 18 months is still in effect and we should all change our PCs for various reasons. Old machines break and can’t be repaired and any new one come with the latest software. New types of hardware require different software which requires more hardware to run efficiently. It’s a vicious circle that shows no sign of slowing down.
    Operating System. As many of you will know Windows 10 does not “play nice’ with many types of software, I won’t even go into 32 bit to 64 bit issues here. We can sometimes live with the change, as long as the issues are not too severe but how long can this go on for? Nowadays most of us have our operating systems updated automatically, a small change there could render our system useless.
    Specific Software. I am on my third genealogical software package and that does not include upgrades to the software versions. Each change was forced upon me as the software ceased to be updated and then failed to work on later versions of the operating system. Each of these software packages has its own format and can you be sure that another software package can read your data?
    So what can we do to make sure our data is safe and secure for the next generation? Standing still is not an option. Sure, it will last a while but for how long? Also remember what seems intuitive for us is complete gobbledygook to the next generation and visa versa. We can use our favourite software on our old machine but that is no use as a legacy if no one else can access our data.
    Backups of your data are partly the answer to this, more on that below. You do of course currently back up your data, don’t you? But remember if you are backing up your data it’s not much use if you are backing up a format specific to a software package that won’t run on someone else’s or your next PC if your current one breaks. The GEDCOM standard has been created over the years to provide one standard format that all genealogical software will read. It’s not perfect and does rely on the import and export functions of your software but it’s better than nothing.
    Also keep your machines and software up to date as much as you can. I know this is not easy but paying some attention to this will help you as making many small changes if often much easier than having to make a huge change which may not work out that well.
  3. Data Backup
    As part of basic computer security we keep backups of our data and we assume that these will last and then anyone can read them. Again this is not the complete picture. In addition to the ability to read in the software format (details above) can you be sure that others can read your backups?
    For an example you only have to look at Compact Disks. Once ubiquitous as the method to move data around and backup onto, nowadays most new machines do not even come with a CD drive! The Library of Congress has done research into just how long a CD will last and the good news is that most will last over 100 years but some can degrade after only 10-15 years or so and this will depend on the make of the CD and even the time it was made.
    Keeping it on digital back up is popular now and seems to be a better solution. The “cloud” is essentially a backup on multiple servers kept by other companies but you have to be sure that the company will be there in a few years time. But in keeping with a new modern technology, companies offering services will come and go and you never know what will happen to your data as it’s effectively out of your hands.
    A paper backup seems to be the best solution but as many of us know this can lead to storage problems – just where to you keep all those folders of paper? Paper documents can also be lost and made redundant as other information comes in.
    So in summary what is the solution to this problem? Well there isn’t one. All we can do is think about our situation and how our data can be passed on. Think how we keep our data and where and try to make sure that all this work that we have done is not lost for future generations.