Learning the story of family historian Alice Sharp Greer sounds a somber note for those who fear they may find themselves in the same situation as she did. Without family to whom we can pass along our work, we have no idea what will become of it.
Many of us have devoted years to compiling the story of our family's past, and may currently house multiple binders, photograph albums, books, working papers (you know, those "notes to self" about discoveries that never panned out) and miscellaneous keepsakes of both relatives beloved and never-met. These documents and ephemera are precious in our sight...but maybe not in the eyes of others.
The question becomes: what happens to our research when we're gone?
That's a question we almost wince to answer. Some of the bravest of us, however, have tackled the question.
In answering that question, my "genealogy angel" and mentor, Sheri Fenley, observed in her blog, The Educated Genealogist, "What happens to my research when I am gone? Well, this is all up to you. Yes, you can have it your way, but you have to have a way to let [your family] know." Sheri suggested the route of drafting a codicil, specific to genealogical materials, to attach to one's will.
Prolific genealogy commentator Dick Eastman grappled with this subject last year in his Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, reminding us that "Someday, somebody will have to dispose of all that material." Perhaps the bluntness of that remark is what is needed to prod us to not only realistically face the fact, but take action.
For those lacking the direction on what specific action to take, Thomas MacEntee went to lengths to prepare the useful e-book, After You're Gone: Future Proofing Your Genealogy Research, urging his readers to take action now. (He also offers a one hour presentation by this same title.)
You know there are horror stories out there. In James Tanner's Genealogy's Star blog, nearly five years ago, he shared the story of his great-grandmother, who, like Alice Greer,
spent a good part of her life doing genealogy, but when I started my own genealogical research, years after her death, I could find almost no evidence of her activity. After years of research, I finally found that all of her files had been sitting...in my Aunt's basement.
Stories like that are what prompted Arlene Eakle of Tremonton, Utah, to take action. As she tells it on the website for The Genealogy Library Center, Inc.,
Several years ago, after speaking at the Southern California Genealogical Jamboree, my associate...and I stopped at a Safeway Store...to get some food for lunch. Instead of re-entering traffic on such a busy street, we drove around the back of the store to use a side street. In the middle of the alley in front of the dumpster, there was a large plastic bag. I stopped to move it out of the way rather than drive over it. The bag was full of someone’s genealogy manuscripts and family records—a handwritten diary, family letters, original photographs, family history notes. I felt a cold shiver!
When other "cold shiver" incidents of the same type kept happening to her, Arlene found a way to buy a building to house these genealogical cast-offs, giving them a home and a way to be found by family members who do care about such material. And she continues to accept material from others whose life work is not gladly claimed by their own family.
There are other options for finding a home for your research, of course. Many people have considered approaching the country's prime genealogical library, as Dick Eastman mentioned, but material accepted into the collection at the Family History Library at Salt Lake City must meet stringent requirements. Likewise, especially for those living farther east, an option might be the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library—again, a prime destination for genealogical researchers—yet donations to their collection will likely go through a vetting process before being accepted.
Some have prudently narrowed their scope and focused on more local repositories. But, as James Tanner mentioned in his post on the topic, even local genealogical societies, historical societies and public libraries have limitations on the size and standards of their collection.
About the most lucid thinking I've come across on resolving this dilemma—for all those finding themselves headed toward the same predicament as family historian Alice Greer—came in the form of a five year old post on the blog of researcher Michael Tormey. Michael fingered the root of the problem as a misdirected focus when sharing our research with family members.
One way to improve the odds that your research materials will survive is to change the focus of your research. The reason many family members see genealogy as boring is because family group sheets, pedigree charts, birth certificates and death certificates ARE boring.
If you really want others to see value in your research efforts, you need to bring your research to life. This means that you need to flesh out the details of not just when your ancestors were born and when they died, but how the lived, why they made the decisions they did, what their beliefs and values were, etc. These are the things that make one’s ancestry a heritage or a legacy.
In other words,
make sure that others understand the value you place on your genealogy and historical records and to take proactive steps to preserve them before they meet a similar fate at the hands of a family member who simply sees them as redundant and useless records of the past.
Granted, while you can exert a certain amount of control over what becomes of your life's work when you, yourself, are the one who is prudently downsizing, there is no way you can control what happens after you are gone. True, with even the best of efforts, your files may be counted as "personal effects" of no monetary value and tossed, along with the other collectibles of sentimental value to no one but yourself. But there are options that, with the same research prowess you invested into breaking through those impenetrable brick walls, you can tailor to match your genealogical donation with the right place—or person—designated to be their recipient.