When I started my genealogy research in the 1980’s, I did a lot of letter writing to courthouses and distant cousins to find the information I needed. My, how times have changed.
As the internet came along and grew, I started finding others researching the same lines on bulletin board systems, message boards, forums, websites, and chat rooms. As for the records, first I gathered those copies from the courthouses, then indexes appeared online, and then digital, scanned copies of a lot of the records themselves have started appearing. At first, I downloaded every list, every census and cemetery record but slowly got away from that practice as the number of records and sites grew. And, of course, my research is a bit unique because I research all the people with a particular surname (Casto), not just one branch of a family.
However, today I started wondering if I shouldn’t be preserving some of these scanned records more than I have. I imagine we have all had the experience of seeing information online, making notes and even putting the link into our database only to later find that website is no longer in existence. Or, as one person recently shared with me, she doesn’t even use a genealogy software – everything is stored online. There are great advantages to that – no paper clutter and notebooks to keep updated and store and move. With smart phones and apps, you can access your information wherever you are, as long as you have a signal.
But what if Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org went away? What if you relied on your online database and then that site started charging so much money it became not worth the cost to access your own information? Or what if you no longer were interested in pursuing it or weren’t here anymore – would your descendants not benefit from your research because you weren’t there to tell them which website had your tree on it?
How many family bibles do you have with records dating back years, decades, generations? How about letters, photos, or books? I think we all have those things lying around the house. How many websites can you name that date back 5 years, 10 years, 20 years??? Ancestry.com went online in 1996, my own website came out a year later. In 2015, The Atlantic posted an article which stated that, in the late 1990’s the average lifespan of a website was 44 days. In 2015, it was 100 days. Will your grandchildren be able to see your research if you don’t have control of its location and accessibility? I’m not saying the internet will disappear but with the rapid change in technology, who can say what it will look like in 20 years. Which brings us back to what should be printed, downloaded, or digitally stored in order to preserve our genealogical research.
Obviously, there is no right or wrong answer. We are looking for permanent solutions in an ever-changing world. I used to print my entire database out once a year and put it in a 3-ring binder as a backup in case my computer became infected, destroyed, or stolen. I included the notes and sources, too. Of course, the moment you print or publish something, it starts becoming dated with each new person you add, baby born into the family, or marriage takes place. I also still have my 8-inch, 5 ¼, and 3 ½ inch backup floppy disks, none of which I can access due to computers no longer having floppy drives. And I have flash drives which work for now but I bet won’t be accessible 20 years from now either. I have looked up what other researchers have advocated doing and, once again, it depends on what your goals are. I want to make sure MY descendants can find my research. Others want to share with as many people as possible. Most will recommend posting or “printing” your information online. In my case and for my piece of mind, I think I may revisit printing things out and downloading digital images I find. Since I have a website and upload my data there, too, I should be covered. For now….