Is Your Genealogy Future Proofed?

by Thomas MacEntee | Mar 21, 2013

Thomas MacEntee

You've spent months or years researching your family history and you consider yourself a 21st century genealogist, what with your "mad skills" when it comes to technology. You can navigate email, Facebook, or genealogy subscription sites easily and you even use cloud-based sites to store your data files. You also take advantage of the latest mobile apps so that your genealogy experience is truly "portable."

Staying current with technology is a challenge for every genealogist, but have you taken it a crucial step forward: Have you future proofed your genealogy?

Future What?

When you future proof something, you try to anticipate the evolution or future developments of that item as a means of being prepared. Taking it one level further, you can also use future proofing as a way to eliminate or minimize any negative consequences as well as prepare for opportunities.

For example, let's say you were able to predict in the early 1980s that within ten years the majority of people would migrate from vinyl albums and cassette tapes to compact discs as a means of enjoying music. Therefore, you created a business to transfer music to that new format. In doing so, you "future proofed" not only the data but also the success of a business based on the need for such data conversion.

What Are the Effects of Not Future Proofing Your Genealogy?

The inability to anticipate future means of access to your genealogy research data and the possible loss of such data has a potentially large impact whether you are a professional genealogist (an economic impact) or a non-professional genealogist (a personal impact).

Imagine if businesses did not upgrade their magnetic backup tapes, a material with a ten-year shelf life, to newer media and then had to rely upon those backups? What if libraries and digital repositories had spent many years and large portions of their budgets scanning documents and photos yet they neglected to keep that data "alive" by making certain the file formats were still in use?

Imagine if you had spent years researching your family history and then storing the data on what you had thought would be a safe format, only to discover, years later, that the storage media had degraded or that the apparatus to read the media was no longer manufactured?

And now in the days of cloud computing and everyone uploading photos, documents and data with ease, have you considered how you could export such data if the platform goes dark one day and the business closes down?

Could a "Digital Dark Age" Become a Reality?

Jerome P. McDonough, professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, poses this question: If you had to choose between a framed photograph and a 10MB digital photo on your hard drive surviving to the year 2063, which one would you choose? Despite our rapid advances in technology during the digital age, you might be surprised to find out that the framed photo might actually be more accessible 50 years from today.

With advances in technology come the change of file formats and the rapid-fire progression of platforms with which those formats are accessed. These days it is easy to forget certain data types when developing an application. Developers could easily say, "Oh no one uses xyz format anymore." As a result, that format no longer has a converter option within the program, other developers follow the same practice and before you know it, you have many files in xyz format and no way in which to access them.

In addition to file formats becoming obsolete is the problem of media obsolescence. When was the last time you accessed that GEDCOM file you have on a 3.5-inch floppy disk? If you had to access that disk, could you still do so? If not, would you be able to purchase the means of access (limited only by availability of the item, not the cost) or be able to pay a service to access the data?

Upgrade, Upgrade, Upgrade

Being in the information technology field for over 25 years, I know the importance of upgrading not only applications but hardware as well. I remember one professional situation where a company did not want to apply the various service packs for Office 2000 that Microsoft recommended on a periodic basis. At one point, it became too cumbersome to apply all those upgrades, so we had to wait until a full upgrade to Office 2003. What happened in the meantime? When we called tech support for other applications, they constantly asked us why we were not on the latest service pack, and then said they did not have a solution for us since we were not "up to date." As well, users were frustrated since certain issues could not be resolved or certain features no longer worked without the upgrade.

It is easy to put off upgrading your applications, especially if there is a cost involved. By procrastinating, you place yourself in a position of spending more money down the road to purchase a new version of the application and you endanger the viability of your data for that application.

Also, don't forget to keep your hardware up to date. Resist the temptation to spend extra money and have a 3.5-inch floppy drive added to your new desktop. Instead, take the time to convert the data on those diskettes to CD or DVD or better yet place them on an external hard drive. Avoid falling back on methods and habits that are comfortable in terms of data access.

This doesn't mean you always need the latest and greatest (and most expensive) apparatus or applications. Stay up-to-date on what the majority of your genealogy peers are using and seek out low-cost or no-cost alternatives when possible. Just don't wait until it is too late to make the switch!

Future Proofing Issues for the Genealogist

When you think about it, many of us already future proof our data when we digitally scan a document or photo. We do this as insurance in case the original is lost or damaged and in case the means or method of accessing that document disappears.

Here is a list of areas of concern for genealogists and family historians:

  • Documents and Photos: Have you scanned all your hard copy documents and photos and using a minimum 300dpi resolution? Are the digital files in generally accepted and accessible formats such as PDF, TIFF or JPG?
  • Slides and Home Movies: If you have only a handful of these items, a data transfer service might be the best means. Many large stores (Wal-Mart, Target, Costco) and even drug stores (Walgreens, CVS) allow you to access these services from their photo departments. In addition, check out services on the Internet or your local photo store.
  • Audio Files: Don't let your audio recordings become the wax cylinders of tomorrow! If you have reel-to-reel or cassette (or even 8-track) tapes, copy them to more up-to-date media. Rather than purchasing an expensive piece of apparatus to accomplish the data transfer, consider using a service or pooling together with other local genealogists to share a common piece of equipment to accomplish the task.
  • CDs and DVDs: Despite manufacturers' claims of a 50-year lifespan, the reality is that most of your CDs and DVDs will last about ten years. You must take into account storage conditions (heat, sunlight, humidity) as well as materials (standard vs. gold, etc.). If you have CDs and DVDs that are approaching the ten year mark, consider testing the accessibility of those items and backing up the data to an external hard drive or uploading them to a data backup service on the Web.

Digital Files

Once your data is in digital format and you are using up-to-date methods of accessibility, take into consideration these points:

  • Don't limit yourself to proprietary file formats. Formats such as PDF (Adobe) or DOC (Microsoft) despite their popularity and wide use are still proprietary in nature and the vendor dictates the standards for those formats. Use TIFF and BMP for photos since these formats are non-proprietary and do not compress the data. Use TXT and RTF for documents, realizing you will lose formatting with the use of TXT. Use HTML and XML when possible for managing and sharing information.
  • If possible, backup to another file format. > When archiving spreadsheet data in the propriety Excel format (XLS) export the data to Comma Separated Value (CSV) format.
  • Avoid compression if it means data loss. Digital storage media becomes cheaper as each year goes by. You can now purchase an external hard drive with 2 TB (terabytes) of storage for as little as $99. Realize that once you compress data very often there is loss of formatting or other aspects that cannot be reconstituted.
  • Diversify your storage methods. As with a financial portfolio, spread the risk and ensure better returns by utilizing more than just one method of data storage. Burn data to CDs and DVDs. Take advantage of low cost or even free online storage websites like Dropbox. Purchase a flash drive, thumb drive or external hard drive and make sure it is small enough to fit into a safe or a firebox.


In my favorite episode of The Twilight Zone, "Time Enough to Last," a bookish bank teller, Henry Bemis, discovers that after spending his lunch hour reading in the quiet of the bank vault, the world has been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. Contemplating suicide, he is suddenly overjoyed in realizing that he now has all the time in the world to read his favorite books. Just as he prepares for just such a marathon of reading, his glasses fall from his face and break into pieces.

Henry Bemis had all the data in the world but no longer the means with which to access it. While you can't be 100% prepared for every inevitability, try to stay up-to-date with the latest changes in technology so you can always access your data and ensure the ability for future generations to access such data and benefit from your research.

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