The originals of most sources that genealogist use today reside on paper. Many have been digitized to allow easy access, but the original is still a physical piece of paper in some archive.

As more 'original' sources and more 'research documentation' go online, is it possible it will become outmoded and information will be lost.

For example, I don't have my late father's pc anymore. I copied off it what I thought I needed - but in retrospect may not have been thorough enough. I exported a gedcom from his software and have kept that for the last 5 years. But if I went to recreate his data today I could no longer do that since the programs, data formats, etc no longer exist.

The above paragraph is an example of potentially losing 'research', either my own or of a third party. As more data transitions to being only being available online (eg an obituary, a family reunion photo, etc), should we be doing something to preserve this data for future generations of genealogists?

The digital image of an obituary in an 1880 newspaper can be a prinary source because the it's really just like a 'citation' to the paper that got scanned. It would still be possible to go back to the paper original is there was any question of authenticity of the image. But with an ecopy of a webpage containing an obituary, is my copy of that site still useable as a primary source? Once the webpage disappears, my copy can not be authenticated.

There are some projects to 'archive' the internet. Is any thought being put into 'genealogical relevant' archives?

Is there anything I should be doing to archive my work and e-sources I use?

Are there standards, recommendations, best practices for preservation of genealogically-relevant digital data?

I am asking this question in GFH instead of digital-preservation because it is genealogy specific.

  • Did you mean to write, "primary sources," or "original records?"
    – GeneJ
    Commented Dec 2, 2012 at 22:43
  • Likewise, do you mean to write, "secondary research," or "third-party research?"
    – GeneJ
    Commented Dec 2, 2012 at 22:46
  • All items of research are derived from a source or originated from a source. Evidence from the source is evaluated to provide proof. Primary sources are from that specific time and place. Secondary Sources are not at a specific time and place, such as a newspaper. Derived from writings authored by Elizabeth Shown Mills. Commented Dec 4, 2012 at 0:47

5 Answers 5


The fact that makes this a GFH question is that we are principally concerned with preserving the information rather than any particular representation of it. Techniques for preserving digital media may be valuable in helping to meet our main goal but they are simply a means to an end.

It may seem counter-intuitive but the best solution is to keep (copies of) your information in the lowest technology possible. In even the most extreme circumstances, it will be possible to set up a scriptorium to copy a paper document.

I have on my shelf a box of 3.25 inch magnetic disks that contain the manuscript of my first published work. At least, I believe the disks contain that work because without a drive to read the media and an application able to interpret the file, I have no way of checking. The disks are actually a souvenir of purely sentimental value. On the other hand, should I ever need to use part of that work, I need only place a printed copy of the book on a scanner and modern OCR software will create a new text file.

When you do archive information in digital form, use a text file format rather than a proprietary binary file. Prefer a type that can be interpreted by humans as easily as read by machines. The information content of these files will be available long after the application used to generate them has been forgotten.

Of course, we will also save copies of our databases in native file format in the hope that someday a great grandchild will find that Roots Magic 19 is back compatible with the 2011 version. On what should we save them to ensure our data is accessible many years in the future? That is a question for digital-preservation

  • I'd quibble about our principle concern being preserving information rather than any particular presentation. Understanding the presentation helps us assess the quality of the information, especially knowing how many generations of copies we are from the original, and how those copies were made.
    – user104
    Commented Dec 3, 2012 at 12:38
  • I could be wrong but I read it as emphasising the logical representation over the physical representation. For example, not being concerned with a specific image or a specific copy of your data as just having some representation that can be stored, copied and re-read later. [apologies if that wasn't the intention]
    – ACProctor
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 14:54
  • @Fortiter, I totally agree with the comment about using a textual format rather than some proprietary binary (aka "non-printable") format. Something the industry currently fails at is to provide a safe and neutral format that can be used for a definitive copy of our data (e.g. for backups). Far too many people think of their proprietary database, or their online tree, as their definitive data.
    – ACProctor
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 15:13

Here are the Library of Congress guidelines for preserving digital memories:

  1. Make at least two copies of your selected documents—more copies are better.

  2. One copy can stay on your computer or laptop; put other copies on separate media such as DVDs, CDs, portable hard drives, thumb drives or Internet storage.

  3. Store copies in different locations that are as physically far apart as practical. If disaster strikes one location, your important documents in the other place should be safe.

  4. Put a copy of the summary description with your important papers in a secure location.

  5. Check your document files at least once a year to make sure you can read them.

  6. Create new media copies every five years or when necessary to avoid data loss.

They also say that producing a physical copy is the best practice for overall preservation.


I've often pondered what would be the best way to preserve my digital media. The best answer I can offer is to write detailed and complete reports of each family member. Include the primary, secondary, and ephemera, as well as written accounts of family stories. Then store them like a museum would.

The answer provided here is based on my belief that just as data has been lost from the out of date software of yesteryear, so it will be lost again as we advance in the world of tomorrow. I want to pick a family member to pass on my records to. Not just a close family member but one that is as passionate about Genealogy as I am.

I just don't see technology staying the same. I do however feel that it is a very powerful tool in my research. A record online that can be obtained from, say, Ancestry.com, still is their property. We can use it for personal use only, but we can't take ownership of it until we go to the source and retrieve our own image.

In closing, I preserve everything on paper because it's something we'll always have. Hope this gives you a perspective at least from my humble opinion.: }


There seem to be different aspects to this question. I won't comment on what the archives and content providers are doing to preserve records, even though they are spending a lot of effort on it, since your title implies your personal data.

I have a lot of material stored on my local computer. Most of my photographs, documents, and manuscript materials have been scanned on there. I'm therefore paranoid about backups. I have several computers in a local network so I regularly do a machine-to-machine backup - every day if I can remember. This ensures against a disk failure. I also make regular copies to dated directories on a memory stick, and to a couple of external drives, and keep them away from the office machine altogether, e.g. one in the garage, one in the bedroom, one at my parent's house. This keeps an audit trail of my work, and ensures against bigger disasters.

A problem with virtually all digital media is the sensitivity to mechanical damage (say for a disk), magnetic fields, and radiation. I'm not sure what the recommended longevity is for a disk, or a memory stick, but we must remember that they're finite. Ironically, the old paper tape and punched card media would be considerably longer-lived, but there are few devices now that could read them.


For media longevity, nothing beats M-disc. These are DVDs and Blu-Ray discs that etch a substrate rather than using traditional optical media storage techniques. Of course, if your M-disc BDR is still around and readable in 100 years but the last Blu-Ray drive was discontinued 70 years beforehand, it doesn't do you much good.

The only reliable way to preserve digital data is to have multiple backups and move each one to new storage media every few years. The genealogy-specific angle to this is that you can't be sure that someone will keep your files backed up after you're gone, or even that you'll be diligent about it for your own lifetime. If your goal is to preserve your work for posterity, you need to store the information in human-readable form as a final backup, which means writing your information into a document and printing it. Any images you have should also be printed and the hard copies stored.

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