Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega gives advice from leading genealogists and genealogy websites about preserving your research after you’re gone. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
It’s a question I hear over and over again. It’s a concern we as family historians share, since we spend years and countless dollars researching our genealogy. Our shared passion has led us to gather, curate, and write about our family history. But when we pass away, what happens to it all?
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a family member interested in continuing our research or even storing it for posterity. Many researchers have family that aren’t interested in their heritage – or aren’t interested right now. So, what can you do? Well, the obvious answer is that eventually you may have a family member who welcomes your research. But that could happen long after you have passed from this world. You need to start making plans now, not just rely on hope for the future.
One way to ensure that your work is available to whomever might want it is to share what you’ve collected online via family trees, genealogy websites, or even your own website or blog. The problem is that any website could eventually cease to exist – and with it your research. If you are using a website or blog that you have to pay for, that too will go away eventually if the bills aren’t paid.
What about donating your research? That can be an option, and donating your research to a library, archive, or museum seems to be a good choice to ensure its availability to future family historians. But even this option has limitations. Researchers often assume that any repository would welcome their research, but space limitations, the focus or goal of a collection, and staff availability to process donations can make it difficult to find an interested repository.
Passing on your research is a serious concern, so I turned to the experts and asked them about donating family history research. Below are some genealogical repositories that you may have considered and their policy on donations.
Family History Library (Salt Lake City, Utah). “We do not accept original manuscript materials as we are not an archive. We encourage guests to submit their family history and upload their source documentation to Family Tree. We welcome book donations of published family histories and other genealogically relevant works.” (1) For more information see the FamilySearch Research Wiki page, Donations.
Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research (Houston, Texas). “We will take research collections, however they need to be in ‘book’ form. That means the papers need to be grouped in a way we can create a ‘book’ that has a title page, a time period and geographic location. We request this information be provided by the donor. We also like to know the five most prominent surnames in the book. For example, we would like to be provided a group of related research pages that have identifying information: Thomas Thompson of Darke County, Ohio (and other locations if applicable) 1823-1900. We need this information so we can catalog the materials. We ask the donor to create the book because we don’t have the staff resources (time and expertise… it’s not our family so we don’t know how to organize it correctly) to process the materials. Additionally, we won’t accept original documents or photos.” (2) For more information see their Support Clayton Library web page.
Allen County Public Library (Fort Wayne, Indiana). “We would prefer that the material be organized in some fashion, by surname normally, with notes identifying the family groupings, etc. If material comes to us already digitized, it’s fairly simple to process it and post it online. If we have to scan or copy the material, it may take much longer. We appreciate that researchers want their work to be preserved, but they need to realize that it may take us quite a while to organize and digitize their material.” To learn more, see their web page, Donation Options. (3)
Midwest Genealogy Center (Independence, Missouri). “Book and periodical donations are gratefully accepted at the Midwest Genealogy Center. Family history research collections are considered on a case-by-case basis.” (4) Please contact them for more information.
[Your] Genealogy Society or Historical Society. Some societies accept donations of members’ research. Obviously, every society has a different take on whether they have the space, time, and resources to accept donations of research, but if your society has a library collection or a place to store items, they may accept your collection – so it’s worth talking to them. Also consider talking to the society located in the place your ancestor was from.
Archives. Melissa LeMaster Barker, the Archive Lady, provided this piece of advice when thinking of donating your research to an archive: “Each archive has their own rules for what they will take and not take. I encourage everyone to start planning now to find a home for their genealogy records. Many archives will only accept original records, not copies. Call and talk to the archivist, librarian, museum curator or historical/genealogical officer and ask them what donations they accept.” (5)
Start Planning Now
Don’t leave the decision about what happens to your research up to your family. You know what you have and whom it would benefit. The message I heard over and over again as I asked about donations was succulently summarized by professional genealogist Amy Johnson Crow: “Talk with your family and the society/library/archive that you want to donate it to. And, yes, you have to organize it before you donate it.” (6)
To learn more about what you should do with your collection, see the RootsTech presentation given by Amy and Allen County Public Library librarian Curt Witcher, “How Not to Leave Your Genealogy Behind.”
(1) David Rencher to Gena Philibert-Ortega via Facebook post, 27 April 2019.
(2) Susan Kaufman to Gena Philibert-Ortega via Facebook post, 27 April 2019.
(3) Email from Allen County Public Library to Gena Philibert-Ortega, 30 April 2019.
(4) Midwest Genealogy Center message to Gena Philibert Ortega via Facebook, 1 May 2019.
(5) Melissa LeMaster Barker to Gena Philibert-Ortega via Facebook post, 27 April 2019.
(6) Amy Johnson Crow to Gena Philibert-Ortega via Facebook post, 27 April 2019.
(7) Amy Johnson Crow to Gena Philibert-Ortega via Facebook post, 27 April 2019.