Let’s Make Genealogy a Thing of the Past

What we should be doing to make the genealogical quest easier—or nonexistent—for the next generation.

Fuck you

Everyone’s a genealogist.

Family history is a booming business. Television programs such as Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are—part treasure hunt, part reality-TV at its most personal—use celebrities as a hook, but they ultimately tap into our deepest desires for connection and pedigree.

Genealogy has been transformed by technology and science. On the tech side, the Internet has made discovering archival documents including census records, birth and death certificates, and ship manifests easier than ever. And on the science side, DNA analysis is now accessible to the masses, relatively cheap and certainly easy to obtain. As a result, more and more people are making strides uncovering their family history through sites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch, among many others.

Researching your family tree takes time—and is rife with brick walls.

Memes among genealogy buffs poke fun at the addictive nature of researching one’s family tree, and the elusiveness of stories than shed light on one’s ancestors. 

Brick walls, names with variant spellings, destroyed records, and incorrectly transcribed documents are just a few of the common problems the questing family historian encounters.

And yet…

Do you want to leave a family mystery for the next generation?

And yet, while many folks get lost in the past, uncovering clues and clicking on those alluring green hint leaves, they never bother to create a paper trail or an archive of stories for their own ancestors. Do we all want to leave a mystery for the next generation? Do you think that spending hours in local libraries and municipal archives searching for your great-grandparents is fun?

Maybe, sure. It is fun—especially when you discover something unexpected, or when you finally score a photo of a long-lost relative.

But wouldn’t it be abundantly more rewarding (and time-efficient!) to have been left a book of your families’ stories, complete with captioned photographs that identify the subjects and documents that reveal their path to the present? 

Many people catch the genealogy bug when a parent or other family elder dies and leaves a handful of mysterious documents that ultimately require further research. Why were they saved? What will they lead to?

Imagine discovering not just a file of mysterious papers or a drawer full of dusty, unlabeled family photos, but a thoughtful history of your family? How great would it be to be handed down a full genealogical record? Even better, a series of stories that showcase your ancestors’ personalities, struggles, and journeys?

How you can help make genealogy a thing of the past.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Genealogy will be around forever; and the further back one successfully traces one’s roots, the further back yet one still wants to go! Meaning: You’ll never eradicate the need for tracing your ancestors’ history. But you can ensure that the next generation will NOT need to search, scour, recreate, or imagine your own generation’s experience.

Leave them records. Most importantly, leave them stories. Share your knowledge. Be generous with your wisdom and your time (sharing your stories can be one of the most rewarding things you do in life, after all!).

Would you like to preserve your memories and leave a complete family history for your children? Here are a few simple ways to get started (admittedly, some more fun than others):

1  Sort your photos.

Depending on the sheer volume of your family photos, this may be an enjoyable endeavor or a dreaded chore. If it seems daunting, set aside a corner of a room for the project so you can leave the mess accessible and revisit your organizing when the mood strikes. Ask your family members to pitch in.

Archival photo storage boxes such as this are a great way to store your family photos long-term, but consider simply using piles and sticky notes during the organization phase.

Archival photo storage boxes such as this are a great way to store your family photos long-term, but consider simply using piles and sticky notes during the organization phase.

2  Label your photos.

You don’t have to label every picture. (Professional genealogists might disagree with this approach, but I want you to get started, and being realistic is key to that, in my opinion.) Use a photo-safe pen, plug in metadata for your digital images, or use a trustworthy digital app to record details. The most important thing is labeling at least some of the pictures with your family’s full names, spelled correctly and written legibly; along with place names and event details if you have them (what was the occasion for the photograph? where was it taken? how old were the subjects?).

3  Digitize your photos.

I recommend hiring a professional to scan your photos. If you do it yourself, make sure to scan at a minimum of 300dpi (higher for much smaller photos you may want to enlarge later). The best thing about using a professional photo organizer, in my opinion, is that your photos will be accessible—not a jumble of unidentifiable files named IMG_1983 and IMG_5910. What good is a hard drive full of photos if you can’t find the ones you want when you want them?

4  Talk about your childhood.

Around the dinner table, on long car drives, over the phone. At family reunions, yes, but in everyday scenarios, too. Sharing stories helps us raise resilient, emotionally happy children, and it’s rewarding. You may roll your eyes when recalling your own grandfather’s tales of “back in the day, I had to walk to school…”—but I bet you do so with a gleam in your eye and a tingle down your spine. Help develop a family lore—or, as Bruce Feiler calls it, a “family narrative.”

5  Write your stories.

Whether you keep a journal or write in one of the myriad family memory-keeping books available in bookstores, just do it! Scribble two sentences a day if that's all you have time for, or set aside an hour every Sunday to contemplate your past. Whatever your approach, I guarantee whatever you write will be cherished by those you love.

6  Organize your documents.

If you’re anything like me, your birth certificate was filed at one point, but after the passport needed renewal, well, I’m not quite sure where I left it. When my mother passed away, I was meticulous with the record-keeping—but now those files contain a wealth of papers that can be tossed, and they’re all mixed up with her vital documents I’d like to preserve (and I DON”T want to leave this entire box as a burden to my own child one day). This is admittedly a big—unappealing—organization project, one of those critical things that remains on my to-do list…but I vow to join you in GETTING THIS DONE. Let’s do it.

7  Find your family stories.

Did your parents or grandparents leave behind a journal? Do you have a stash of letters amidst your family heirlooms? Maybe you or your spouse kept diaries or scrapbooks as children. Even your ancestor’s handwritten recipe file may be a wonderful trove of stories worth handing down. And photos are undoubtedly one of the best memory prompts. 

Gather those precious keepsakes, and go through them. They’ll provide fodder for story-sharing with your kids, and spark memories you’d thought long forgotten. Consider digitizing the most important and meaningful items, whether yourself with a phone app or by a professional. 

This Royal Albert teacup is lovely, sure, but I saved just one of my mother's set after she passed away so I could commune with her in my memories over tea. I photographed it and recorded its stories, too—yes, this teacup holds plenty of vivid stories, and I'm sure your family heirlooms do as well.

This Royal Albert teacup is lovely, sure, but I saved just one of my mother's set after she passed away so I could commune with her in my memories over tea. I photographed it and recorded its stories, too—yes, this teacup holds plenty of vivid stories, and I'm sure your family heirlooms do as well.

8  Record the provenance of your family heirlooms.

We’re talking the 3-dimensional kind of heirlooms here—think jewelry, a watch, furniture, a set of china dinnerware. Not everything will be worth saving or passing on to the next generation, of course, but for those things that you consider worthy, fill out a simple tag with vital information (Hannah Bergen Heirlooms offer beautiful ones). When the time comes, your kids and their kids will have all they need to fairly consider whether or not they want to bring those ugly dishes that hold “sentimental value” into their homes!

Without realizing it, you’ve set the stage for a beautiful family heirloom book.

If you’ve done all of the above, then you’ve no doubt come to value your own family stories and respect the need to preserve them for future generations. What you might not have realized is that you’ve also gathered most of the materials you need for creating a genuinely unique family heirloom. 

Would you like to see how we could honor your stories in a bespoke book? With all the legwork done, taking the next step is easy…and hopefully inevitable.

If you're just getting started on preserving your family's stories and lineage, why not print this page and check things off as you go? Sometimes just having a reminder can help set us on the right path.

Congratulations on taking the first step in creating your own legacy!

 

#genealogy #lifestories #memoriesmatter #familyhistory #familyphotos #storytelling