Taking the long view

Stack of papersAs a researcher, I most enjoy looking through collections of personal papers. For me, seeing what items still exist is just as interesting as finding the data they contain. I have gone through family papers that I was told were “junk” and found information that I would have never found elsewhere, and which only exists because someone thought it was important enough to keep. It was when pondering my family papers and the records I create in my own research that I began to think about future genealogists.

I would be willing to bet that most people have hard drives from old computers and no idea what is on them. In the process of moving files from an old computer to a new one, they took what they thought was necessary and saved it, thinking of the original hard drive as a last resort if old files needed retrieving. But in the future the problem becomes accessing that information. Files can no longer be opened because no one knows what programs created them, files get corrupted, and people don’t stick to naming conventions. I once named a second draft of a paper I wrote for graduate school “Part deux” because I was making major changes and wanted to refer back to some of my phrasing from the first draft. At that moment I was only working on one paper and I knew what it was, but now without opening the file I could not tell you what class that paper was for or what it contained. Is it because of the ease with which we can create electronic records that we don’t pay attention to the preservation of our own personal records?

Other digital records that future genealogists may have to deal with will be kept on social media platforms. According to Twitter, they currently have 271 million active monthly users who send 500 million tweets per day creating records of their lives and experiences. Currently the Library of Congress is archiving all of the public tweets and in a paper the library published in January 2013 they said that executing a search of the available tweets (2006–2010) could take up to 24 hours. For future genealogists, will they be missing a part of their ancestors’ lives because of the number of records that may have to be searched? Are these 140 character records going to matter to genealogists, or are they more useful for a broader study of society? How will future genealogists connect actual people to their online personae with any certainty?

Just imagine the loss of information that would have occurred if William Aspinwall had kept all of his notarial records in a file format that was no longer supported or the files had become corrupted. Or if some of the journals from the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were kept as online journals under aliases, with no way of identifying the writers. With personal records becoming increasingly digital, are future genealogists going to be missing out on things that are important to understanding their ancestors’ lives?

About Jason Amos

Jason received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and his Master of Science from Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, focusing in archival management. He also received a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University. Jason began at NEHGS as a volunteer and then as an intern with the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections before moving into Research Services. Jason enjoys writing narrative reports and searching for every piece of information relating to an ancestor that helps reveal what their life was like.

14 thoughts on “Taking the long view

  1. Excellent questions, Jason, and thank you. Future researchers will need specialized tools to reconstruct the worldview of the cyber age. It is important to keep them in mind.

  2. An excellent post! I am an old time genealogist (42 years) and much of my material is not digitized. I have binders of old letters and original documents that I am digitizing and sharing with other family members in the hope they survive somewhere. There is something remarkable about an old library card or a deed that can not be dupicated by today’s digital media. Writing an email or a tweet is far different than writing a letter. Change is ineveitable much of it good—but what traces of our esxistence will be left when no ephmera exists? When everything is digital?
    Kelly Wheaton

  3. In going through a “pile of junk papers” I found a 1″ x 5″ receipt for my gg grandmothers burial plot. From that I was able to uncover the date and location of her death and cemetery. Before it was a total mystery.

  4. Future genealogists will absolutely be shortchanged by a lack of hardcopy records and documents. In reality, who writes letters much any more? I can’t imagine wading through thousands of emails (if they can even be accessed) as a substitute for a stack of old letters bound up with ribbon.

  5. Great post!! So very true what Tricia said about how future genealogists could very well be short changed – or that they may have to come up with methods of research we haven’t even dreamt of yet. However, I am compelled to admit that if I have to look for an ancestor via Twitter – I may give up genealogy in favor of a good game of cribbage.

  6. Your first paragraph reminded me of what happened when my mother moved into assisted living 2 years ago. She and my late father had lived in the same retirement home for more than 30 years, with a storage locker in the basement and plenty of closet space. My brother, sister, Mom, and I spent one afternoon a week for months going through boxes, sorting. My brother and I are the genealogists. If Mom and sis didn’t recognize a picture, they wanted to toss it. Finally bro and I convinced them, when one we ran into later was labelled. The kicker for me was a large manilla envelope Mom wanted to throw out “because it’s full of old letters I can’t read.” I rescued it. The gem was a pages-long love letter, 1907, from the man who would become our grandfather to the woman who would become our grandfather. We never knew either of them. We have a collection of postcards they wrote to each other in 1910-1911, the year they were engaged. But this single letter, when they were still hiding their relationship from her family, shed a great deal of new light on who they were!

    So now I’m transcribing and scanning. Both are going slowly, but I’m working on both tasks. I used some of the best pictures, including some where not everyone was identified, this last year in biweekly invitations to our family reunion. We’d had to call it off the year before for lack of response. This year we had a big turnout, which I attribute to my emails.


  7. I learned early on, when all the family papers made it to my house as I became the family “elder”, that you read EVERYTHING before discarding anything. I have found genealogical gems in some pretty unexpected places. And I make it a point to keep hard copy–beyond the originals–as well as digital. My granddaughters may have almost as much to go through as I do, but it will be better organized.

  8. Having spent much of this year trying to sort through my dad’s stuff, I have boxes and boxes of papers to look through. He inherited things from his father who had things from his parents. Two generations of military men, two world wars, early Humboldt Co. history – amazing things. I even found my mother’s medical records from her pregnancy with me. Military record keeping!

  9. Sometimes the items left behind cause confusion. My grandmother left a note in her antique sugar bowl saying that it had belonged to her great-grandparents, Eli Hamlet and his wife Mary Clough of Brownville, Maine. However, in 40 years of research, I’ve never found any documentation for a Mary Clough. All extant records I’ve located show that Eli had one wife, Mary Richardson. (Who does not seem to have been a Widow Clough or Widow Richardson when he married her.)

  10. My great aunt printed out every email anyone sent to her and placed it in a file with their names on it! Her husband, my uncle Doug, was an historian and author. When he died, his papers and letters, which included those of his parents, were archived at a University. I’ve enjoyed reading them online and they’ve served as a resource for researchers and other authors.

  11. The difficult situation is when you are the only one in the family who thinks any of this has more than curious value. Your files and research won’t survive you. Family sizes drop for 2 or 3 generations and spread across America. Few want to take on the trinkets and treasures as they pare down their own lives. One can only write and share the story widely, hoping it will survive us to a descendant who will value it.

  12. Paper records have their own inherent problems in that they are easily lost, tossed or forgotten. So my rule is to scan all of my original ephemera, print all of my digital records, and widely distribute all of it to lots and lots of family on a regular basis. I have also emailed invites to view my family trees on ancestry.com to all of my immediate family, siblings and a few distant cousins. I also regularly email the same group with short updates on my latest breakthrough which always includes a few photo/document attachments. My hope is that after I am long gone, widely distributed print and digital copies of my work will be more readily found.

  13. When I was a child, my Mom and I lived in a huge, rambling, stone home that had been built by my great-grandfather. My great-aunt and great-uncle, who owned the home, lived there along with my maternal grandmother and my great-grandfather. One day, when I was around 3, I found an old hat box in one of the closets. Inside, was a small scrap of paper, with “cursive” writing on it. I took the paper to my great-aunt and asked what it said. She said, “This is my family. This shows Grandpa’s name (my great-grandfather), his Daddy’s name, and his Daddy and Mama’s name. This is your family too.” So began my life-long love of history and genealogy. That was 63 years ago. And now, after all these years, my brick wall remains the parents of my great-grandfather’s grandmother.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.