The short answer to the question posed by the title of this post is: “I’m not willing to rely on a genealogical will to dispose of my material.”

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating:

when you are dead, you are dead.

At that point you cease to have any real control over your affairs and your assets. I realize you could have a will, a trust, and specific instructions about what is to happen to your genealogical papers. I’m long enough in the tooth to know that sometimes every detail of a deceased person’s wishes are not carried out to the letter.

The reality is that the court may not really care about those papers and those books. Face it: the only people whose papers are really worth something when they are dead are people who were well-known and famous when they were alive. Most of us do not fall into that category.

Do not rely on someone to do after your death what you should be doing while you are still alive. I realize it is not easy. I realize that not everyone has someone to “take over.” Dumping the responsibility for handing your genealogical materials on your heirs increases the chances your material gets dumped in the garbage. Your heirs do not have the personal interest in the genealogical material that you do. The judge or the court certainly won’t have the interest in the material.

What will matter to the court, and to most of the parties involved, is that the real and chattel assets with financial value are handled in a responsible fashion. Chances are your genealogical collection does not fall into the category of being financially valuable. How much you spent to acquire all those paper copies and books has little bearing on the cash value of those materials. Actually it has virtually no bearing on the value of those paper copies, digital scans, etc.

Your relatives may not want your material. I understand how frustrating that is. Your death may not cause them to want the material any more than they did when you were alive. Libraries or historical societies certainly will not want boxes of unorganized materials, especially when many of the paper copies are of records that are available already on microfilm or in print format. Libraries and societies value collections that have unique value. Stacks of copies of census printouts, printed books, and microfilmed materials does not unique material make.

Periodically a “genealogical will” floats around on the internet with the suggestion that “printing this and filling it out” will solve your genealogical preservation problems. It won’t. It simply puts the burden on someone else. Someone else who does not really care.

The reality is that not every genealogist has someone who can “take over” for them. I understand that. But if you want to preserve your information, you have take the initiative. Waiting until after your death is clearly not an option.

Waiting until later may not be an option either. The best time is while you are physically and mentally able. Sometimes life takes away those abilities in an instant.

Immediate things you can to do preserve your information:

  • Organize what you have. Libraries or societies do not want material that they have to organize. Future users of your material are not likely to use if it is simply a stack of papers or random collection of images. You may wish to contact the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and see if they would be interested in taking your material. But organize it–you may even find information you forgot you had.
  • Write up your material. Libraries, societies, and other archival groups are more likely to take a bound book than a stack of materials–even if that book was one of a few copies that was never really “published.” Consider donating a bound copy of that book to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Your goal is to preserve the information.
  • Consider publishing in small chunks. Submit a biography of an ancestor to a local genealogical or historical society newsletter or quarterly. This can be a way to preserve some information for the long term and can be a more manageable way to start.
  • Consider blogging as a way to share your information. Keep in mind that this type of publishing is more a sharing than along-term preservation approach. However, you may locate someone who is interested in your materials via your blog.
  • Look for ways to interest others in the family history. Write about items in estate inventories, take pictures of where the farm/house used to be, find out about your ancestor’s military career, trip across the ocean, etc. as a way to bring your ancestors to life. Get beyond the dates of birth, death, and marriage.
  • Digitize pictures and other unique materials that you have. Scan them at as high a resolution you can ( 600 DPI should be good).

Initially don’t worry about the type of paper you will use to print your materials on. Don’t worry about the binding. Don’t worry about the “report format. Don’t worry about whether your citations are going to pass muster.

Get started.

Digitizing materials that are not already digitized should be your first priority. Then pick an ancestor and find a society in the area where he lived. Contact their editor and tell them you are interested in writing a piece for their newsletter. They will most likely take your submission, fit it to their format, and use it. They aren’t going to clean up your grammar or fix your errors. Those are yours.

That ancestor you decide to write on can be the first ancestor whose materials you organize.

What are you waiting for?








3 Responses

  1. I agree with you 110%. As someone who routinely buys genealogy stuff on ebay, that families have either sold as part of the estate, or separately to make some quick cash, people should NOT depend on their descendants, no matter how dear to them, as willing or able to fulfill their disposition wishes. …. New Iphone ….. old photos …. you know which will win.

    • You are so right, Janice Brown. My mom was contacted from with a message. A lady found my aunt’s bible , at a thrift store. Thankfully, Mom has it now. Some people care nothing about sentimental objects.

  2. Thanks Michael. Although my research is well organized I am definitely at a point in life where I need to be considering ‘what happens next’ to all the notebooks, contents of my genealogy software, etc. I’ve tried a few of the techniques you’ve suggested receiving some interest, mostly out of ‘kindness, I suppose’. Need to get busy.

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