But for many genealogists, part or all of a genealogical treasure trove is now made up of digital bytes. If you're part of the new trend of "paperless genealogists," all of your research might be digital. What about your password-protected databases, your social media accounts, your scanned documents?
Larry Akin is a hobby genealogist based in Texas with over 30 years of experience and a strong Information Technology background. He sees many advantages to paperless research, especially the ease with which you can pass it along. Akin has stored much of his research as a searchable PDF file on his computer which he can search through using a desktop search engine. To share or pass on the information, Akin only needs a simple thumb drive (also known as a flash drive or USB stick).
"In fact, with this technique, the material can be given to as many people as are interested - not just one," he wrote in an email.
Akin also maintains a database on Ancestry.com and has already started a succession plan using the different levels of access the database allows an owner to assign others. Akin has shared his tree with a few dozen people, with some of them being assigned "contributor" or "editor" status. He sees the long-term benefit in it for genealogists:
"Thus, when advancing age makes maintaining the database too difficult, those Editors and Contributors can be left to add, modify and delete items from the database," he wrote. "The tree and materials will remain on Ancestry.com as long as they stay in business. Any Editors could continue to maintain it, or you could change the name on the Ancestry.com account to some other person and they would become the new owners. So, the tree could be handed off to another."
Akin also likes the idea of uploading as much genealogical information as possible to the Internet via sites like Ancestry.com. He notes that your research can live on as distant relatives, historical societies or museums take information relevant to them and connect it to their own online research. (I will stop here to acknowledge that while you will have confidence in the accuracy of your own uploaded research, taking someone else's uploaded research, especially if not supported by scanned original documents, is taking a chance with accuracy.)
The Afterlife Password Puzzle
It's not just paperless genealogists who are enthused about the idea of online storage. With the growing popularity of "the cloud," that is, storing information online in a remote server (or servers) instead of on your desktop, it seems this is the future we are all heading toward.
But being online, whether on Facebook, Ancestry.com, Google Docs or an online backup service like Mozy, requires passwords. As more of our online lives are gated with passwords, the worry about how to make sure others have access in the event of the owner's accident or death is a legitimate one.
In 2005, Yahoo Inc. was ordered by a court to hand over the email account of Lance Cpl. Justin M. Ellsworth, who was killed by a roadside blast in Iraq. Yahoo had originally refused Ellsworth's family request to have access to the late Marine's email account, citing privacy policies.
The case highlights the difficulties that can arise if "digital planning" doesn't happen. In the years that have followed, several online sites have opened up which let you plan who will be able to access your information.
One is Legacy Locker. The San Francisco-based company describes their services as a "digital safety deposit box." Users can store passwords to their online accounts there, and assign a "beneficiary" for each account. In the event of the owner's death, two verifiers (chosen previously) must confirm the death and provide a death certificate. The company will then begin the process of releasing information to the assigned beneficiaries after they confirm their identities.
"This may sound like a lot of work, but we feel your digital assets require the same trust and care as your life insurance, property, jewelry, cars, or other valuables," the company writes on its website.
A similar service is provided by SecureSafe out of Switzerland. Its DataInherit function lets you pass along files and passwords to designated recipients in the event of an emergency or worse. A pre-authorized activator will begin the process if necessary, with no lawyer involvement needed.
But while businesses such as Legacy Locker and SecureSafe can do much of the work for you, the most important part is up to you: finding interested parties who will agree to be the beneficiaries of your online research and accounts, and finding trusted people who can act as verifiers or activators to start the process.
If you haven't already done so, t's worthwhile at this point to check out, "Who will carry on when you're gone?' Finding the next homes for your genealogy research?" It might be a digital world, but passing along research in it involves the same first step it always has: reach out and find the people who are willing and able to keep your shared history alive.