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Protecting Your Records From Catastrphoic Events

With the recent destruction and devastation that Hurricane Katrina unleashed on the gulf coast, it serves as a grim reminder of how everything you have worked for can be gone in an instant. As genealogists we collect lots of stuff; paper copies, compute


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With the recent destruction and devastation that Hurricane Katrina unleashed on the gulf coast, it serves as a grim reminder of how everything you have worked for can be gone in an instant. As genealogists we collect lots of stuff; paper copies, computer files, books, and pictures are just some of the items we may have tucked in a corner of the dining room or all over a home office. At somber times like these it is a good reminder that we need to make plans for all the family "stuff" we have collected in case our home should be destroyed by fire or natural disaster, or even if our computer were to crash with all our files on it, or when we die and no one knows what to do with everything. As I prepare for traveling to Salt Lake City for the FGS conference, I start worrying about what have I done to ensure my genealogy and pictures are safe while I am gone. All of the following suggestions take very little time but will be vital to your information being safe and sound.

Back Me Up Scotty

Well, it only has to take a second after your computer crashes to remember that you should have backed everything up. Believe me, I've had that sinking feeling myself more than once in my life. Try to make it a habit of backing up at least your gedcom file and pictures every month or so. Obviously you'll want to do it more frequently if you are adding items on a daily or weekly basis. You can back up this information to a CD or DVD, if you have a burner on your computer. Another handy way to do this is with a flash drive. A flash drive is a small disk drive that can fit on your key ring. Depending on your needs, you can buy one that has 128 MB to 1 Gig. My 256 MB flash drive fits all of my genealogy files and some of my digital pictures. I can take this mini drive with me when I go visit my cousin and plug it into her computer's USB drive and share with her the files I have gathered since our last visit.

Now once you have backed up your files, your work is not done. I recommend giving a CD or floppy disk copy of your files to someone. I periodically send a CD to my cousin and my brother. That way no matter what happens, I know that someone else has some of my data. You could also e-mail a friend or relative a gedcom for safekeeping.

Several websites exists that provide file storage on the internet, , , and Yahoo briefcase, allow you to upload files and retrieve them when you want. Each differs in how much space they provide for free, Yahoo allows 30MB of space while Save File allows 50MB, so you may want to comparison shop before committing to one. Fee based providers start at $2.99 a month but they can provide up to 1 Gigabyte of space for your files. What is nice about these services is that you can upload files and then allow others to have access to the information. Plus you can access it from any computer, so if you go on a research trip and forgot something, all you have to do is get to a computer and sign on to the Internet, and voila-instant access to your files.

At the very least, you should consider uploading your gedcom to a genealogy provider like or which allows you to connect with a distant cousins and also provides an online backup for your gedcom.

For holiday's, I try to put together small family history narratives with information, charts and photos for my loved ones. Yes, I may not be a popular gift giver in my family but by giving family members these heritage books, I ensure that other people know our shared heritage and if I were too lose my information in a disaster, someone else would have it. Putting together a "book" with your family history can seem intimidating, after all most of us don't feel "done" with our research yet. But, consider putting together something simple, maybe a life sketch of one ancestor. Add some pictures, maybe a map and a pedigree chart. For under $5.00 you can go to a copy store and have a nice cover put on it with a coil binding. Your family will be happy to see what you have found and you will have another way your information is "backed up".

Nothing's Certain Except Death and Taxes

A common theme among some of my older cousins is that they have put a lot of work into their genealogy and their kids either don't want it or are not interested. One cousin has already showed her daughters where the genealogy is and that it should be shipped to me upon her death. Another has shown me where all her files are so that I can take them when she passes on. Their foresight and preparation is important. You have spent too much time on your genealogy; researching, writing, collecting pictures, to have your family throw it away or stuff it away due to disinterest or feeling overwhelmed by it.

So what can you do? Well, first make sure your family knows what you want done with your research once you are gone. Do you have another family member that will treasure it? Perhaps a genealogy-minded friend? Is there a library or archive that would welcome it? Once you decide where it is to go and have made arrangements for it to go there, make sure people know what papers are important. A great rubber stamp is available from Fun Stuff for Genealogists ( that says "Stop! Important Genealogy Material!! Do not destroy or throw away! Give to ______" They have another useful stamp for valuable family items. This will help your family members, when the time comes, make sure that your legacy and all that you have worked hard for will live on.


If you ever have to evacuate your home because of a disaster, here are some things to consider:

  • Have all your genealogy in one place, that way if you have a few minutes or an hour to evacuate your house everything is accessible and easy to locate.
  • Unplug your computer tower and just take that. That way you have your hard disk and everything on it.
  • Keep genealogy files in a metal file cabinet. If your house were to catch fire, the file cabinet is not fire proof but, if the fire was in another part of the house, it is a good barrier for your papers. Unfortunately, if the fire is in the room where the file cabinet is located, is it will be destroyed.
  • Keep extremely important material, anything that can't be replaced in a fire proof safe. Fire Safes come in a variety of sizes and price options. You can purchase an affordable briefcase size safe that will hold some photos or a small portable safe that is set up to hold hanging file folders. For large items or lots of stuff, some gun safes are fire proof and can be fitted with different interiors to accommodate anything from papers to jewelry to guns. Fire safes are generally safe for fires up to 1200 degrees.

No one likes to think about something bad happening to them, but life happens. Whether you live in Tornado Alley, in the path of hurricanes or earthquakes, preparing your genealogy not only gives you piece of mind but ensures that your work will continue and not be lost to future generations.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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