Preserve Your Data!


Greetings! Here’s your Monday Family History Moment for the week.

This topic may not be the most romantic or glamorous aspect of genealogy, but it’s one I feel so strongly about that I want you to have this information right up front, before you delve too deeply into your research.

Let me tell you a story…

In 2004, I became very enthusiastic about researching a particular line of mine–the Driscolls who hailed from West Cork and settled in Oswego, NY on Lake Ontario. For seven years I avidly researched and uncovered everything I could find about my ancestors, relations, and many branching collateral lines. There were thousands of people in my tree and I had many thousands of digital documents on my hard drive: newspaper articles, censuses, draft records, and much, much more. I’d taken several research trips to Oswego, scanned documents there with my portable scanner and taken more photographs of headstones, family homes, churches, and other related sites than I could count.

One cold January morning in 2012, I sat down to begin my usual day of work. After a few minutes of routine email checking, the screen froze, went all fuzzy, and I found myself face to face with the dreaded blue screen of death. Nothing I did would bring the computer back. I rushed it to our local experts who used every means in their power to extract the data, but there was nothing left. Everything on my hard drive was gone.

“Well, why didn’t this silly woman have a back-up drive?” you’re probably asking yourself. “Doesn’t she know better?” The irony is that I did have a backup drive. But, because it was connected to the computer at the time of the crash, the computer took it down right along with it, and not a scrap of data remained on the backup drive either (a more intimate and emotional account of this incident can be found on my personal blog here).

I lost everything…everything. The only evidence I had left of my seven years of research were the original, physical primary documents and photos that had been handed down to me from my mother and grandparents and the public tree I had posted on Ancestry and on my Rootsweb Freepages site, neither of which had been updated in quite some time.

I still have not replaced so much of the information I lost that day. I hope to do so over time, but life is busy, and I don’t have the concentrated blocks of time available that I did back when I began my quest for the Driscolls. I never want you to have to go through the same heartbreak as I. So I’m going to share with you here the ideal backup protocol to assure the safety and continued survival of all of your hard work.


Online backup

First of all, everyone should begin with an online backup system. Most are by annual subscription, though there are ones that offer a certain limited amount of free space.  PC Mag compares the top online backup systems for 2016 here. I now use Crashplan (which was rated pretty highly by PC Mag) and I’ve been quite happy with it. In addition to the backup it provides, I can access any document on my computer long-distance from my phone or iPad (through a free app), which has proved extremely handy on more than one occasion. The beauty of online backup is that it takes no effort on your part and there’s nothing to remember. As long as your computer is turned on and connected to the Internet, it backs up your data all by itself.


External drives and DVD-Rs

In addition to the online backup, you should have an external hard drive, backup onto high-quality DVD-Rs, or better yet, both! It’s quite easy to backup onto an external drive, so I would recommend doing that a few times a week, if not every day. And when the backup is complete, properly eject the drive and disconnect from the computer. Don’t leave it connected as I did, or it could crash right along with your primary machine. It takes a bit more time to do the DVD-R backup and can use quite a few discs if you have a lot of images, so I generally make that a weekly or bi-weekly event.

How you store these is of the utmost importance. I know tech experts who keep their backup drives and DVD-Rs in climate-controlled safety deposit boxes. I don’t go quite that far, but it is crucial to keep them away from extreme temperatures, dampness, and other tech devices and electronics. I once had an external hard drive where I stored all of my digital photos of my little girl, but because I stored it in a closet on top of other hard drives and old laptops, somehow they canceled each other out and it was completely erased, while just innocently sitting there in storage. Heartbreaking. I don’t claim to understand the why or how of these tech issues, all I know is, don’t do it! Store your external drives and DVD-Rs in a safe, dry, cool (but not cold) location away from other devices.


Hard copies

The ultimate backup is, of course, an independence from technology. Actual physical hard copies of the photos and documents you find in your genealogy journey are the true safeguard. No matter what happens to your devices, as long as you store your hard copies properly, they will always be waiting there for you, even with no internet access or working computer. Ideally you would make a printout of every document you come across online or scan at an archive or other repository. However, as your research grows and expands to collateral lines, this can get quite unwieldy. Alone, I had almost 2000 newspaper articles on my hard drive, plus thousands of historical documents. It takes a lot of time to print and organize and a lot of space to store all of that! So, unless you have lots of free time and lots of space, I would recommend printing only the most crucial: documents, clippings, and photos related to your direct line or to the primary line that you have been actively researching, or those items that give you some piece of unique data not found in other sources. I treat my printouts as historical documents and store them as such, using archival methods (see the next section), but this can get pretty pricey if you are printing out quite a lot. So if that is too much of an investment, just make sure the containers in which you’re storing them (sheet protectors, binders, albums, etc.) are acid free.


Historical documents & old photos

The original documents and photographs in your possession that have been handed down through the generations are true treasures and should be treated as such. Electronic scans of these items are a wonderful security measure in case of damage to or loss of the original. But the reverse is true, as well. In case of electronic data loss, the original becomes the backup, so to speak, so make sure you are storing and preserving them in such a way that they will last for many generations to come. Store your documents and photos in true archival quality sleeves/sheet protectors, boxes, albums, etc. I buy my supplies from (no, this is not an affiliate link. I just trust the quality of their products after years of use and am happy to recommend them).

And again, store all of these items in a secure location away from extreme temperatures and dampness. Ideally, they would be kept off site in a climate-controlled safety deposit box or storage facility.  I freely admit that I do not store mine this way. My affection for them is such that I look at them too frequently to have them stored at a distance. But I do assure that the room in which they are kept is cool and dry (but not too dry!). But I do have a constant fear of a house fire or flood that could destroy them. So if you have the means and the will, an off-site, climate-controlled storage location could be a real blessing.

As for display of these types of items, I generally keep my old photos and documents in archival boxes and if I want to display them, I scan and print copies to frame. That way the originals are protected from exposure to sunlight, air, dampness, etc. If you are going to frame original old photographs, it’s best to get a professional to do it for you, but at least make certain that you are using archival quality acid-free mat board. And please hang them away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures.

Although it was outdated and missing much of my findings, if it wasn’t for that public tree I had posted on Ancestry, I would have had to start from square one. So if you do subscribe to, make sure you are regularly updating your tree there. If you’re using Family Tree Maker as your genealogy software, it will sync up with Ancestry, as long as you have a good internet connection, and there is very little you have to do. But don’t always assume that it will automatically sync with Ancestry. You can set the sync options to automatic, but even at that, I often have to hit the sync button in the top right corner to push it to link up with the website and update the information. It seems to be a bit “quirky” in this regard. And if your computer shuts down improperly (i.e.power outage), you may need to re-link FTM to your Ancestry tree (this has happened to me more than once). I generally make sure to sync every single time I add new information to my tree. But definitely remember to do it at least once a day or once a session, depending on how often you work on your tree. If you use another software other than Family Tree Maker, you’ll have to upload a new GEDcom file to your Ancestry account to update the tree on Ancestry. I recommend doing this at least once a week or after every session where you’ve added a substantive amount to your tree.


I’m certainly not a professional IT person, just an unsuspecting genealogist who learned about computer crashes the hard way. But if you take these measures, you should be able to sleep safe and sound knowing that your ancestral info is preserved for many generations to come. It may sound like a lot to do right now, I know. But better to take a little time out of each week to tend to these matters than to lose years worth of hard work. And with a bit of time, it really does become second-nature, like brushing your teeth–a bit of important maintenance that becomes a part of your regular routine and really doesn’t take that long to perform. I wish you, your documents, and your data many long years together!


Tara is available for in person or long-distance consultations on genealogy and family history research. Email Or if you you’d like to find someone in the specific geographic area you are researching, try the place-based search tool provided by the Association of Professional Genealogists.