It's 10 PM - Do You Know Where Your Genealogy Data Is?

by Thomas MacEntee | Jul 3, 2010

Thomas MacEntee

After years of researching your family history with visits to local repositories, field trips to ancestral lands or far-flung cemeteries, and hours spent online tracking clues, can you quickly answer the following questions:

- Do you know where all your genealogy research data is located?

- Has your genealogy data been backed up recently, and if so, how?

- Will you be able to access your family history data, including photos, 10 or 20 years from today?

If you had to pause and think about any of these questions, or if you answered no to any of them, then all your hard work could disappear in the blink of an eye without a simple three-step plan of 1) finding, 2) preserving and 3) maintaining your genealogy data.

Genealogy Data Loss - A Personal Experience

More like a personal disaster. I worked over five years on researching my family history both online and through visits to courthouses, archives and other repositories. I took photographs of headstones in a rain-soaked cemetery and uploaded them to my database. I received dozens of emails from cousins and other relations containing clues, leads and family stories.

And one day the hard drive on my computer failed. Did I make a backup? Why no - I always put it off until later, or I figured I'd never have a problem like a dead hard drive. What about a printed copy? Sure but it was out-of-date and also didn't include my source citations or research plan so I could go back and retrace my steps.

Cue that old television commercial about travelers checks where the tourist is stranded with no money? The announcer says, "What will you do? What will you do?" Yeah, the moment was much like that.

I can't even begin to describe the heart-break I experienced when this happened. Losing your genealogy research is nowhere near losing a loved one, but you can image how upsetting the prospect of starting from "scratch" was for me. Luckily, I only had to learn this lesson once. After this disaster, I embarked on a plan to make certain I never would lose my data again.

Step 1: Take Inventory - Do You Know What Genealogy Data You Have?

Before you can embark on any data backup plan, you have to know what data you have and where it is located. All too often, genealogists will not cast a large enough "net" in their search for genealogy data. Just as the Genealogical Proof Standard, requires a "reasonably exhaustive search" when documenting an ancestor, the same care should be taken when taking inventory of one's genealogy data.

Over the years you may have collected a variety of data in different formats, with some more important than others. But sometimes it is those "little bits of data" such as an old e-mail, or the digital scan of a back of a photograph that can later unlock a mystery and possible break down a brick wall. Here are items to consider when putting together your inventory:

  • Genealogy database files
  • Research logs/spreadsheets
  • Research plans
  • Scanned documents (census records, etc.) and photographs
  • E-mail messages from family members and fellow researchers
  • Audio files of recorded interviews
  • Field trip notes
  • Contacts and address books listing family members and researchers
  • Lists of accounts and passwords (in digital form)
  • Bookmarks to websites and other online sources
  • Genealogical society periodicals (in digital form) and other resources

It is amazing how much valuable data actually exists on your computer. Very often researchers don't realize the amount until they perform a data inventory.

Step 2: The Backup Habit - Easy Ways To Backup Data

Once you've located every possible bit of data related to your genealogy research that you want to preserve and protect, next choose from various ways of backing up that data.

  • Basic Data Backup to Storage Media: this is the simplest method and the way most people backup their computer data. Select from various storage media such as CDs, DVDs, etc. and copy your data from your computer to the media. Plus: easy to do; affordable; easy access to data. Minus: you must remember to backup; storage media can degrade and become inaccessible.
  • External Drive / Flash Drive: the price of both flash drives and external drives have dropped dramatically over the past year while the amount of storage (over 1 Tb) has increased. Brick-and-mortar stores such as Best Buy as well as online vendors like Amazon offer a wide variety of external and flash drives to fit any data storage needs and any budget. One benefit of external storage is that most come with software to automate your backup process. Plus: affordable; automated and scheduled backups. Minus: can be difficult to install; drives can fail or become corrupt.
  • Backup Software: while more and more users are opting for the online backup method (see below), many still have software installed on their computer to assist with data backup. Programs such as Handy Backup will help manage your data and set up a backup schedule as well as select a storage location. Plus: a comprehensive backup plan in one program. Minus: often superseded by online backup programs which offer the same program for free or at a low monthly cost.
  • Online Backup: various web-based applications such as Mozy offer a base 2GB of storage for free (and a larger amount can be had for a monthly fee) while others such as Carbonite offer unlimited storage for a low monthly fee. Plus: affordable; easy to use; automated backups. Minus: can be expensive depending on the amount of data; data security concerns.
  • Online Data Storage: some users take the brave step of not storing data on their computer at all - they've opted to keep it "in the cloud." Programs such as DropBox and iDriveSync allow you to not only store data (as much as 2GB for free), but allows you to access that data from any of your computers or even mobile devices. And the best part: change the data on one machine and it gets updated on all your machines. Plus: affordable; easy to use; no need for backups; automatic synching of data across multiple devices. Minus: can be expensive depending on the amount of data; data security concerns.

Step 3: Futureproofing - Accessing Your Data Down The Road

It isn't enough to just perform a backup whether it be yearly (not a good idea) or monthly (a better idea). You need to also consider how the data is stored and, more specifically, on what media the data is stored.

Remember the 5 1/2" floppy disk - the one that was truly "floppy?" How about the smaller and more rigid 3.5" diskette? If you still have any of these "artifacts" lying around, you've either not looked at them in years or you still have a computer with a disk drive capable of reading the data.

Futureproofing is the process of making sure that the data you've worked hard to save and backup can still be accessed in the future. A classic situation is the following:

If you had an old wedding photo of your parents in a photo album (the kind with the black gummed corners mounted on a page) and a digital scan of the same photo, which one do you think would be more accessible 50 years from now? If you said the original photo, you're probably right. Why? Because technology changes and it is difficult to keep up with the different ways of storing data. Just as recorded music has moved from wax cylinder, fragile 78RPM platters, 8-track tapes, audio cassettes, CDs and now to MP3 files, so too have the various data storage methods.

Periodically, you should see what changes have taken place in data storage media and if the method you are currently using is close to becoming outdated. Here are some ways you can move your data from one storage method to another:

    • Floppy disks and diskettes: If you have a disk drive that can read disks or diskettes, copy them to your hard drive or an external drive as soon as possible. Don't spend time looking at each file! The important thing is to get them off the disk and on to a more accessible storage format. If you do not have access to a disk drive, consult a local computer store or even a computer users' group and see if they can transfer to data to a flash drive or CD for you.
    • Data CDs: Did you know that CDs can degrade and won't last forever? Make sure you copy those files to an external hard drive or a flash drive for extra protection. Also consider upgrading to gold CDs or even DVDs for data storage.
    • Photographs and slides: Many stores - even your local drugstore - have services to scan your photos and slides. Check super stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco for photo services such as scanning slides or photographs. And don't forget chains such as CVS and Walgreens which also have similar photo services.
    • Home movies: Whether they are on 8mm reels, VHS or other formats, most of the photo service stores listed above will also convert your home movies right to DVD.
    • Audio recordings: Various "media conversion services" such as Digiteck will handle audio transfer to more accessible media such as CD or MP3 files.

While you might consider purchasing software and equipment to transfer the data to a better format yourself, most times it is more cost effective to have a service do the conversion. And the good news is, that after you've upgraded the data, you'll find the new storage method is often cheaper and can hold more data in a smaller amount of space. The bad news: new and improved methods of data storage are always being invented!


Ensuring the future of your collection of family history and memories involves three steps: finding the data, preserving the data, and maintaining the data. And while there are a variety of choices involved (backup methods, data storage media, etc.), once you have a backup plan and routine in place, quite often the process can run on its own with little maintenance or care.

Don't think that a data loss disaster can't happen to you. Don't tell yourself, "I'll backup my research tomorrow." While your family has history, your family history data has a future. And it is up to you to make sure that data is passed down to future generations.

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