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Everyone here will have thought about the longevity of our data, including related artefacts such as photographs, documents, letters. What is the best approach for preserving this and ensuring that it survives our lifetimes?

Issues I am concerned about myself include:

  • The electronic representation of the core data. It would be naive to expect that all current software products will survive indefinitely. Hence, holding a proprietary database in some archive would not be a good move. If the data is represented in a non-database format (preferably textual in nature) then will that be readable indefinitely? Unfortunately, we only have GEDCOM at the moment and that is already inadequate for use as a definitive version of my data.

  • Should photographs be saved in electronic format or as originals? Is jpg likely to be around for the longer term? How can originals be preserved?

  • Who owns the data? If I give it to some online content provider then they will technically own the content, and may charge my descendants for access. If I pay some site for publishing my data, who pays when I no longer can?

  • What sort of repository would consider and administer privacy issues? Some data should be preserved but not published to the world at large.

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This should be split up into multiple questions. Although they're all related, it is pretty broad right now. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much. When your questions are more specific, you'll get better answers. –  American Luke Dec 12 '12 at 13:58
I disagree since an answer to any single concern is not an answer to the whole problem. The enumerated list are the requirements of the single method I am looking for. –  ACProctor Dec 12 '12 at 14:12
I see. It still seems rather broad, though. –  American Luke Dec 12 '12 at 14:30

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This question highlights the need to look at preservation as a whole, and to tackle it with a multi-pronged system that mitigates and protects against a myriad of potential threats such as:

1. Hardware might become obsolete (Can the data be accessed in the future? Think of 8-track players, what if USB memory sticks are not usable in the future? What if the shape of the USB plug-in changes in the next ten years?)
2. Software might become obsolete (So your computer still works, but can your software actually open the file and sort the data into an organized manner that makes sense?)
3. Flood, fire, theft, rodents, etc.
4. Carrier might deteriorate or become damaged (oral histories on cassette tapes, data on CDs, DVDs, memory sticks, etc.)
5. To what degree can online content providers be trusted? Will they be operable indefinitely? What if they are bought by another company, go under, change their access policies?

I would therefore suggest that you consider developing a personal LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) system. This might look like the following:

Store a copy of your data in multiple locations in a variety of formats. Your working copy (the one you access and update every day) might be on your laptop or main computer. Write down the specs of your computer hardware and software - What version of Windows are you using? What version of Family Tree Maker, etc.? Keep the install discs and manuals for your software and hardware. Back up your files onto (at least one) disc, flash drive or external hard drive. Move this storage device outside of the home. By placing it in a safety deposit box or safe, you might be able to signal to your descendants that this was important to you. So that when they are sorting your effects, the genealogy doesn't just go into a miscellaneous pile. You could also include a note with it explaining that the information contained within is very important to you and that you would like it to be passed on to a family member who would take responsibility for it. They might also then get your install discs (computer even!), and access to any genealogical information you have stored online. Here, I would like to point you to the concept of a digital executor. Somehow, you should make access to your cloud storage or other online collections of your research available, should you pass on. As suggested by @Lennart Regebro, print out a hard copy of your research once a year or so. He suggests that this is a stable format that people will still be able to access (read) in the next 50 years, regardless of technology changes.

Ask yourself, are you trying to preserve the data information, or the format and way that it is laid out also? The two are not the same. If you want the data to appear as close to the way that your computer software makes it look to you right now, then you will need to build into your plan ways to keep the software readable, updated and transferrable over time. But if you are looking to preserve just the hard facts, then the printout @Lennart suggests will do the trick.

Some archives are attempting to build up stockpiles of obsolete or nearly obsolete hardware and software, so that they can access records stored on out of date devices, but this requires storage space to hold (potentially) rooms full of equipment, expertise to know how to use the equipment, spare parts to repair the equipment, time, budget funds, vision and foresight. When planning, you would need to think in the same manner... How would my descendants know what this is? How would they access the content? Do they need a password? Do they have the hardware and software to 'make it go'? Does it matter if the font is the same? The layout the same? Do the queries work?

All of this is to say that you need a plan, and that this plan should tackle all of the risks that you can imagine. Including human negligence or oversight. The shelf where you store things that are important to you might be obvious to you, but not to others. Label clearly and make copies; copies in different formats using new and old technologies. Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.

ps - regarding your particular concern about photos - Following LOCKSS, your originals would be maintained as well as could be (acid-free folders, waterproof container, etc.) and copies would be made in a variety of formats... JPG, PDF, PDF/A, TIFF, (whatever makes sense for your system), etc. If there are negatives or slides then it would make sense to also keep or acquire the equipment needed to "read" them, like a slide projector.

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I like your LOCKSS suggestion. I have used this same argument to encourage photo-sharing in my family. The more copies that exist then the less chance of anything being totally lost. However, photos are easier to get enthusiastic about. I don't have that many true genealogists in my family. –  ACProctor Dec 13 '12 at 13:52
We had a photo tragedy in our family, as the youngest sibling was entrusted with almost all of the pictures of her parents (because she had the fewest memories of them), but then her basement flooded and now there are almost no images of the parents for anyone to enjoy. –  Canadian Girl Scout Dec 13 '12 at 14:45

My approach is determinedly low-tech: if you speak to any professional archivist, they will tell you that paper (or papyrus, but that isn't really an option for me, or stone tablets, which would be really inconvenient) is the most long-lived data medium to date. As long as all the information, evidence and reasoning is present in a paper document (supplemented by paper copies of -- or unambiguous references to archived copies of -- as many of the sources as available) then the worst that can happen is somebody has to verify my reasoning from the original sources and re-enter it in their technology of choice.

Because of my (other) identity as a professional author, I already have a digital executor who will close down my web-presence in an orderly fashion. However, I will also be leaving paper copies of everything (with a supplementary GEDcom and JPGs/successor formats) and PDF and plain text versions of the document(s) as well) to every niece and nephew I have (although most of them couldn't care less right now, they might acquire an interest in later life, or their children might. (Good grief, I'm a great-aunt...) I will also be leaving the same material to the (libraries of) the genealogical societies of which I am a member (Society of Genealogists, as well as various geographically-based ones e.g. Dyfed, Gwynedd and Glamorgan FHS.) I'm not in the position of owning any unique original documents or photographs; if I were, they would go to the relevant local archives for preservation, as well as being included in any digital provision I bequeath).

I will upload whatever is possible to as many web-based trees as possible, including people who might charge in future as well as ones who probably will not -- reasoning here is that availability is what's important, even if it's limited (and not confined only to pay-per-view sites). My own website is already archived at the WaybackMachine and I suspect similar facilities will survive me. I'll also make an attempt to get it archived at the UK Web Archive.

I'm lucky in that issues of illegitimacy and adoption in my generation and our descendants are all common knowledge in the family, so there are no secrets to keep. Should any new sensitivities appear, that information would only be available to family members.

All this depends on me making regular copies of the relevant documents in the most up-to-date electronic formats that my digital executor can turn into paper. Note to self: leave plenty of ink cartridges.

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The point about paper being resilient made me think of punched cards. Yes, there are still a few of us who remember those, and punched tape. They could provide a digital record that would not be destroyed by magnetic fields, radiation, etc. –  ACProctor Dec 19 '12 at 14:40

It's going to be a bad idea to maintain physical copies of all the data that belong to you ( or that belong to your forefathers ) by yourself as digital/physical media , unless you are an expert in the field of data storage and you have a hardware at your disposal that would scale.

Because we're talking about all the personal data of a lot of people, I'd look at Big Data. Since it's impossible for an average person to provision and maintain a Big Data infrastructure , The Cloud is the answer you are looking for. Amazon recently launched RedShift service which is a petabyte scale storage system which is fully managed - they take care of provisioning, monitoring, replicating, scaling.

Anybody may argue that today's hardware/software will become obsolete in the future and that is true. But isn't it also true that Beethovan's symphonies are today hosted on the Cloud and if tomorrow the cloud becomes obsolete, they will be available on whatever will be the future of preserving an audio artifact ?

Now about the points you are concerned about.

  • Who owns the storage ? I do not think that passing your data to your descendants would be the best way to do it. I would prefer having a centralized storage that you and your descendants can use.

  • Privacy ? This is a problem. After years , your family would have branched out so much that the leaves in those branches may even be strangers to each other. At that point, privacy may become a concern. Also, you want to pass on all the data so it survives so your descendants or anybody else can access them. So defining who can access them is going to be tough after you leave the scene.

  • So how do you devise a policy to maintain the privacy ? You could encrypt your data and pass on the key to decrypt it to your trusted descendants if you want to pass it on to specific individuals. Maybe in the future, the DNA can be used as the key so that everybody carries the key to their ancestors' data

  • Who pays for all this ? Whoever wants to use your BigData repository has to pay for it. I'm thinking in terms of a collective fund. Like you pay tax to the government to maintain the infrastructure that you use , you pay the BigData service provider so they would maintain your and your forefathers' data.

This is just a concept, and there are a lot of challenges , there should be an abstraction layer on top of the BigData services which will help users to do something like this overcoming the challenges.

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I've been thinking about this same issue. This is my opinion, someone must get creative. What will be here in the future? The only way to preserve our past is by teaching the future how important it is to preserve it. Other than that the past will simply fade away as our technology advances. Also, it should be noted that great lengths have been taken to preserve historical documents, paintings, pictures, and other items by way of climate control and restoration efforts.

However, here are a couple links about "Digital Format Sustainability" and "GIS Development Guides" you may find useful...


GIS Development Guides at NY State Archives (captured copy via Internet Archive)

I truly feel that teaching others and making the tools of Genealogy available to them is the way to go.

I will chose a person from my family to pass on my archives to. In closing I would like to say thank you for asking this question. When my younger relatives ask me about our family I think, "maybe this is the one that will want the responsibility of taking our family into the future." : }

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The NY State Library and Archives has redesigned its website, and links to its resources have changed. I I have not been able to find the GIS Development information on the new site -- it is not in the publications list, and the page for developing a GIS system on the new site is quite diffierent. I've changed the link to point to a captured copy from the Internet Archive. –  Jan Murphy Aug 6 at 17:56

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