Genealogy: Make future generations care

Shoebox filled with black and white vintage photographs in disarray.

As a family curator or genealogist researching your family history, don’t you want to make sure that your research is valued and secure for the future? Don’t let your family research end up in the next generation’s trash.

Research or just gathering stuff?
We can get caught up in the research, making copious quantities of notes and saving every scrap of paper. But the question we should be asking is “What content will make future generations care about my story?” Stuff gathers and collections grow, but what’s the point? Do you have a clear intention of crafting a story for the grand kids that can be told over and over again or just gathering stuff? People are visual and family photographs top the list of objects that have the ability to connect with people’s emotions. Use them wisely.

Don’t assume your research will be preserved
We all want to believe that if our research and family photographs are important to us then they will be important to others. Sorry, but it’s just not the case. Often adult children end up clearing out Mom and Dad’s house and when they come across boxes and boxes of family research or photos they often don’t know what to do with it. Adult children with busy lives and families of their own have their own stuff. They don’t have the room to store more uncatalogued material and they may not care enough to bother saving it.

A sense of obligation or guilt may keep your research around for awhile but it’s not a sure plan for the future. Even if research is safe for a little while, the stories may not be being shared. Guilt usually lasts for one generation. People only keep what is important to them. Families need to care in order to move the family story forward.” Rootstech 2018 presentation: How Not to Leave Your Genealogy Behind by Amy Johnson Crow and Curt Witcher

Metadata: Get future generations to care
The more metadata (data about each photo) your photos have, the more valuable they become to the next generation. Be wise and organize your photos with personal data in the form of metadata. You’re intimate with your research but take the point of view of a person who has never interacted with it before. Make your research intuitive. Your data should be so clear that someone from a different country or language can look at it for five minutes and know what’s in there and why it’s important.

Organizing digital files
If you can’t find stuff, neither will any one else. Part of the challenge is the identification of what’s inside your digital photo file. DSC_024.jpg or family.jpg doesn’t cut it. If it’s not labeled properly you won’t know and the chances of someone opening up thousands of photos to find out is remote. A basic step for digital photos is to create a folder structure on your computer with meaningful names that hold context for the viewer. Taking the next step to more advanced organization is about metadata. Adding metadata to digital photo files actually helps the end user understand what is inside the photo file before having to open it. Metadata is embedded in the file and will create a level of organization so you and others can find the important stuff later.

Keys to success
1. Don’t just be organized, be intentional
Apply a non-genealogical context right away with your current photos and documents and get them into a location that’s accessible right now. If you wait until you have time to organize for others, it probably won’t happen. The first time you come in contact with your photos should be the first step in your photo organization work flow. Even if it’s a small step and the only one you take, it’s better than nothing. If we aren’t being deliberate and intentional with our photos and family research, they won’t make it to the next generation.

2. Preserve family stories and photos of people
It’s the stories and people shots that your family will care about in the future. Write your story in your own words. Anything you can do to make ancestors seem human goes a long way for future generations. Pull out stories and discoveries into non-genealogical terms. Keep your stories short in the form of captions that can be included as metadata for each photo. Keeping captions and descriptions short and clear will give your story more impact than a novel length narrative that is a work in progress.

3. Research for end results
What are you doing with all that research? Have an objective for your message. This is a big aspect to preserving the family story and moving it forward. Decide intentionally what to preserve—don’t just keep everything. Bring forward your conclusions. What was this family all about anyway and why was it important? If you don’t decide, then later on down the line, someone else will. And they may decide your research is trash. Do it now, while you have control. Start today.

Learn more about Digital Photo Organization that includes Metadata and our Digital Archive solutions for future generations.

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Nancy Nickels
Nancy Nickels
Professional Photo Organizer at Family Photo Fix
Family Photo Fix helps clients organize, preserve and share their family photo collections. Based in Toronto, Canada, Nancy works with local clients while providing remote services for digital photo organization and coaching for digital photo management.