What will happen to your family history after you die?

It’s never pleasant thinking about your own death, but if you have spent many years working on your family history you should make arrangements for what you want to happen with it after you die. If you don’t, then it will probably get thrown out – and that’s not a pleasant thought either. Even if your family knows you have been researching your family history and knows that you won’t want it destroyed, they will need specific instructions from you.

The first problem is that your family or executors will not recognise all the bits that make up your family history. Your folders and papers may be obvious, but would they know that you had family trees online in four different places? Would they recognise the research books, copies of certificates, maps, photos and so on that you collected? Would they know that you used family history software, kept images on your ipad, and had your DNA tested and uploaded to three different sites? Or know that you had drafts of books and articles you were writing?

No? Then your first task is to prepare an inventory of all the bits that make up your family history. And don’t forget to include website addresses and passwords.

While you are making your inventory, it’s probably a good idea to organise your materials a bit better – using a system that a non-genealogist would not have too much trouble understanding. And labelling – lots of labelling! That includes papers and folders, but also folders on your computer. And how about making a folder labelled ‘Save my family history. Read this for instructions’?

Next, prepare an overview of your family history so that anyone who is handling it later will have a better idea of how everything relates to different family members, and understand the labels you put on the folders, books and other items. Print out a family tree chart and a report from your family history software (if you use it) and put them in the ‘Save my family history’ folder. Don’t forget to find a safe and obvious spot for the folder, so someone will find it. Even better – leave it with the person who is the executor of your will.

Now you need to decide where you want your family history to go. Is there someone in the family who will accept it? If not, then investigate repositories who might accept family history research, such as your local library or family history society. Or, if you are in Australia, then you should consider donating it to the Society of Australian Genealogists ( After you make your decision and check that they will accept your family history, include instructions in your will. If you are donating to a repository, you should also consider including a financial donation, to help cover the costs of caring for your family history.

The final task is to check that any subscription or paid services associated with your family history are also assigned. The rules of inheritance differ with each one, so you will need to check each one. With some, you may be able to include information in your will but others may have a section on the website that you have to fill in.

Resolving place names

Getting the places right is fundamental to family history research. After all, everything your ancestors did, they did in a place, right? It is the places that things were done which help us figure out if we are looking at our ancestor and not an imposter with the same name. Place names also help us research the history and events that had an impact on our ancestors’ lives. And, getting the place right stops us from looking for records of our ancestors in the wrong place.

No matter how you record your family history – whether it be in family history software, an online tree, a book, an excel spreadsheet or pieces of paper – from time to time you need to sit, review and correct the place names in your family history. The exact process will vary depending on how you record your family history, but here are some general tips.

Review your place names and make them as specific and complete as possible. You cannot assume that everyone knows which Mount Pleasant you are referring to, or where Tomerong is. A complete place name should have at least three parts. In Australia, we have suburb/town/city, state or territory, and country. Record the place name starting with the smallest unit and ending with the largest. Use Wikipedia or a gazetteer to verify that you have recorded a place correctly.

Place names change and so do boundaries. Check that you have recorded place names as they were called at the time of the event. This helps you search in the right jurisdiction for other records and related people. Current names can be added as notes. Be wary of computer programs and online trees which attempt to standardise place names. If they don’t have the place name in their database, it can be tempting just to use the nearest place that they do contain.

If you use family history software, check if you can edit the master list of locations as well as correcting individual entries. Changes made to such lists are then applied to all individuals using that location. If you use an online tree, such as Ancestry, you can manually edit place names to apply any necessary corrections. In addition to the issues mentioned above, look for inconsistencies, such as the example below.

Organise your files

When I was younger, feeling overwhelmed by all that I had to do, my mother would say ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ ‘One bite at a time’, I’d reply. It’s a great saying because not only is it practical advice but it also makes light of what might seem insurmountable.

Organising your family history research papers and electronic files might seem like an insurmountable task, especially if you have been researching for some time. But if you tackle it like you eat an elephant, then it can be done.

In family history we are lucky because an organisational structure is built in to our family structure. We have two parents and four grandparents – or in my case, six grandparents as my father was adopted. However many you have, that gives you a basic organisational structure. So, the first bite of the elephant is to divide your files into those groupings – two, four, six or eight, whichever works for you. Once you have done that, it won’t seem quite overwhelming.

When you have the energy for another bite, you then divide those groups further. Surnames make good subgroups, because our research tends to focus on surnames and your organisational scheme needs to support your research process. If you work mostly with paper, you could set up four boxes or in-trays, one for each grandparent. Manila folders could be placed in them for the Surnames.

I prefer to store my files electronically. Within each surname folder I have a subfolder for each generation and the next level is subfolders for: Certificates, Images & Photos, Notes, Reports and Research & Analysis. I also include a folder called Work In Progress within each Surname folder, so if I don’t have time to file things properly I can at least save them into the correct Surname folder and they are there waiting for me when I do have time.

The structure you use is up to you. The important thing is to divide the task up into manageable bites.

PS I do not endorse eating real elephants!

Elephant photo by Mylon Ollila on Unsplash

Fix those missing source citations

It’s important to set aside time to update your family tree by adding source citations to information that does not have any.

If you have been researching for a long time or have not been conscientious about adding sources as you go, then you may have a lot of work to catch up on. To make this seemingly endless task achievable, you should break it into smaller chunks – perhaps one hour a week or fortnight. Don’t forget to measure your progress – seeing that number of missing source citations dropping is motivation to keep at it!

If you use family history software, you should be able to find a feature that tells you which information in your tree currently has no source citations attached. In Legacy, for example, under the Search tab select Find, then select Missing Sources. You can search for people who have no sources, or are missing source citations on one or more items. You can also narrow your search for people who are missing specific types of source citations, such as sources for the death date and place. Click on Create List to generate a list. You can work through the list from this interface, or click the Options button then select Print. That gives you the option of saving the list as a PDF or as a CSV file. I prefer the CSV format because I can open it in Excel and mark them off as I complete the citations.

If your tree is online with Ancestry, FamilySearch or another site, you will need to impose your own structure to work through your tree systematically adding source citations. One way to make it manageable might be to work on one surname at a time, starting from yourself and working backwards in time.

Of course not all sources are equal in quality and there is also the question of how many sources you need to cite, but those are issues for discussion at another time. One source is better than none, two independent sources are better, and if you find more then it’s time to celebrate.

Choose a method works for you and get stuck into it. The benefits are worth it!

Four good reasons to cite your sources – Part 2

Reason No. 3: To acknowledge the work of others

If we use the work or ideas of another person in our family history research then we need to acknowledge their work, and source citations are a good way to do that.

If you present the work or ideas of others in a way that suggests that it is your own work then you are committing plagiarism. Failing to acknowledge the work of others is not a big deal if you do not present the results of your research to others. However, you do need to cite your sources if you put your research online, or include it in a book, essay, thesis or journal article. A source citation is needed when you quote from another work; include ideas or the work of another researcher; or if you include data, images or media produced by someone else.

Just because someone has researched the same family as you, it does not always mean that you have to acknowledge their research. If you extract information from their research, then verify it using original or reliable derivative sources, then it is those sources that you cite, not their research. This is because the information is not their creative property. However, if they wrote a story about their family based on the information, then that story is their creative property and needs to be acknowledged with a source citation. In such cases, copyright may also apply and you may need to seek their permission to reproduce it.

Reason No. 4: To help you analyse the source

One of the most important and often overlooked reasons to cite your sources is that doing so helps you analyse the source, and this improves the quality of your research.

Writing a source citation forces you to examine the source more closely. You have to consider the nature of the source and why it was created. You have to identify who created the source and where it was created. You also have to identify if there is anyone with creative property rights – such as an author or a photographer. And, if it is an unpublished source, you also have to think carefully about the details required to help someone find the source for themselves.

All of the information gathered for the purpose of citing a source helps us to understand the information in the source and increases the likelihood that we will interpret the source and the information accurately.

[The image used here is believed to be in the Public Domain, but a citation won’t hurt: Harrison Fisher, Fair Americans, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911]