By Edward H. Gaulin and first published in MISSING LINKS: A Weekly Newsletter for Genealogists, Vol. 3, No. 36, 4 September 1998; Copyright (©) 1996-98 Julia M. Case and Myra Vanderpool Gormley. Reprinted with permission.
|A message on the Internet caught my eye the other day and I can’t get it out of my mind. A West Coast genealogist had been exchanging information with a researcher in Virginia for some time. Then it happened. Her last message bounced — it couldn’t be delivered as the address no longer existed. Fortunately she had received a number of family group sheets from her correspondent which listed a telephone number. When she called the number a man answered, so she asked for her Internet friend and, after a slight hesitation was told, “Oh, Mary Ann passed away three weeks ago.” Shocked, but ever gracious, she expressed her sympathy and commented how close this long-distance relationship had become and how it will be missed by her. The husband explained that he was sorry that he couldn’t be of any help because he really didn’t know much about what his wife was doing with her genealogy.|
|Perhaps you too have noticed at genealogical gatherings that the average age of the participants is something in excess of 39 years, at least judging by hair color. Most of us really don’t have a lot of time to devote to our hobby until after the kids are grown, out of school and we’ve retired. Then it is no longer a hobby, it becomes an obsession. At some point in our continuous search for dead people, our ancestors, we recognize our own mortality and start to think about a permanent home for our research. If our children or grandchildren appear to be interested, we have it made, but frequently that’s not the case. Then what happens to our “stuff”?|
|Genealogists are usually pretty smart people, until it comes to providing for the distribution of their genealogical assets. The latter, in my case anyway, is a room full of books, journals, magazines, pamphlets, maps, photographs, brochures, newsletters, computer equipment and furniture (desk, chairs, file cabinets, tables, lamps, etc.). The files are loaded with folders bearing family and town names, historic events, and a bunch labeled “MISC.” There are miles of computer printouts, hundreds of photocopies, and many “original” vital records. My desk is usually loaded with correspondence awaiting an answer — either mine or from someone else. What should my wife do with all this stuff when I make the ultimate research trip — a personal meeting with my ancestors?|
|Some of our brighter colleagues say “My college library is getting all my stuff” or it’s going to the local public library or to the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City or even to the Library of Congress. Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but unless you are a celebrity or a huge financial donor, these institutions probably won’t want your material — they just don’t have room for it. They would be grateful for a copy of your book, but they might not want the manuscript or research notes. The FHL would appreciate a GEDCOM disk of your genealogy database files, but it doesn’t want your paper pedigree charts or family group sheets.|
|So what are your spouse and children to do with all of your stuff? They could really do a couple of dumb things with it if you don’t provide guidance to them while you still can. It could be placed in the weekly trash collection and don’t say “They wouldn’t do that” because it unfortunately happens all the time. How about a garage sale? Now that is really scary, but it also happens every day. Remember all those old photos and tintypes you have seen in flea markets? How about all those bargain genealogy books you bought because you got to that garage sale before the dealers did? They all had to come from someplace.|
|What should you do to insure the sane distribution of your genealogical assets? Perhaps the first thing is to make a record of what you have and then try to keep it current. Show the acquisition date and how much you paid for each item on the inventory sheets. This is especially helpful for artifacts, collections, and books. A photographic record of these items, including those of rare books, could also be useful. Microfilm, microfiche and complete photocopies of books and some records have value. Back issues of many journals, newsletters, and magazines are also in demand by genealogists and therefore have value. However, if you don’t tell them what is valuable, your heirs probably won’t know.|
|Now that you have identified your assets, you need to tell someone what you want done with them. Maybe the simplest way is to prepare a letter to your heirs, but remember this lacks the force of law. If they want to, they can toss everything in the trash. A better way to provide for the distribution is in your will, particularly if you also designate sufficient funds to carry out your wishes. Your Last Will and Testament is also where you may make specific bequests: your copy of the 1898 edition of Burke’s Peerage to your FGS Conference roommate or your old roll-top desk to your newest granddaughter. Your wishes can now be enforced by the courts, if necessary.|
|If you still want to have any of your assets given to your alma mater or a local library or anywhere else, personally contact that agency and discuss the possibility — right now. It won’t come as a surprise to them and they should be able to advise you immediately of any conditions of acceptance. If you can support those conditions, ask for a written acknowledgment that can be placed with your will.|
|Some other things that you can do right now are to distribute copies of your research among your family, friends, and, perhaps, local or national libraries. This is simple if you have progressed to the book-writing stage, but don’t be too concerned if you haven’t. Many genealogists assemble their pedigree charts, group sheets, pertinent vital records, selected family photographs, and other important documents in notebook form. They write a brief introduction, provide a table of contents, and sometimes an index before having copies made for distribution. Afterwards, the notebook can be kept current with a new year’s letter which might include new charts and photos.|
|Computerized genealogical data can be distributed in the same way on diskette. Sometimes an envelope or jacket is provided in the notebook described above to house data disks. Another way some researchers try to insure the safeguarding of their electronic data is to submit it to the LDS Ancestral File ™ or one or more of the other commercial collections. If you don’t know how to do this, consult your local genealogical society or Family History Center or even the public library for instructions.|
|Another thing you can do right now to benefit your heirs is to clean up your files. Eliminate unnecessary correspondence and duplicate copies of records. Toss out all those old printouts you made in 1984 on your Apple IIe computer. Sell all the “Genealogical Helper” magazines you have saved since 1973, because you will never open one of them again and you know it. If you get 50 cents each for them you can have a pretty good dinner. Give away all that old computer software that is taking up room on your bookshelves — it’s probably not worth anything anyway. Label your photographs, and diskettes too.|
|I find it a bit morbid, but you may wish to write your epitaph and select your tombstone now to insure future researchers will not encounter some of the same problems that you’ve had.|
|If you decide to follow some of these suggestions, when you do eventually meet your ancestors they may thank you for perpetuating their memory. They may also show you where you made some of your mistakes and be able to fill in a few of the blank spaces in your previous research.|
Remember, do it now; there may be no tomorrow.