Archiving Your Digital Family History Files (#1): Find Your Digital “Stuff”

This is part two of a five-part blog series about organizing and preserving your digital genealogy files. Read the introduction here.

I started doing family history research when I was about 10 years old, when most of our research was still very much paper-based. If I had any digital files, they were saved on my parents’ computer. In the years since then, both my dad and I have done genealogy research, and our digital files accumulated on both of our computers, in our emails, on various flash drives, and many other digital locations. I’ve had to develop ways to keep track of both the paper and digital files that we’ve accumulated. Most of my research is now stored digitally. During my library science degree, I took a class in Digital Preservation, and for a class project, decided that it was time to consolidate all of our genealogy “stuff” into one shared Digital Genealogy Archive, and I developed an organizational system to manage it. I now have over 600 GB and 23,000 files (and growing!) in my digital archive. This blog series combines what I’ve learned in my Digital Preservation class about Personal Digital Archiving, and my own lessons learned from creating my own Digital Genealogy Archive.

The very first thing that I had to do was to track down all of the places that my parents and I had saved our digital genealogy files throughout the years. This included files that were migrated to new computers when our old computers died, files that were backed up onto old external hard drives, kept on old floppy disks, CDs, SD/camera cards, email, Google Drive, and more. I’ve found these things in my dad’s desk, on my own computer, on random external hard drives, on CDs that were kept in envelopes that were sent from second cousins and sitting on our bookshelf… well, you get the picture.

access business cellphone computer
Your digital files relating to family history are probably stored in a variety of places, including your computer, external hard drives, your cell phone, and more!

Like me, your first step to organizing all your digital genealogy files is to FIND them. Most of your relevant files are probably currently on your current computer, but there are probably other files out there that you want to save. Make a list of all the locations where you’ve kept digital information about your genealogy. (You can use my checklist as a guide!) Like me, this may involve locating old hard drives, flash drives, email accounts, and more. You’ll need to think of all the kinds of files or other kinds of digital “stuff” that should be archived with your family history, and where you probably have all this digital “stuff.”

 

Where do you have your:

  • Family Tree? (Is it online? Is it in a software program on your computer? Do you have family tree files that someone else sent you?)
  • DNA data? (If you’ve done an ancestral DNA test, have you backed up your raw data? Do you have any other information related to your DNA test that should be saved, like your estimated ethnicity results?)
  • Scanned family photos? (Including photos that you’ve scanned yourself, and photos that you’ve received from someone else. Are they on your computer? In your email? On a CD? In the Cloud?)
  • Digital Family photos? (What kinds of family photos have been taken with a digital camera or smartphone? Are there photos from recent family events or gatherings that should be saved? Do you have photos of family headstones or monuments that were taken with a digital camera? Are these photos on your computer? On the camera’s SD card? On your phone?)
  • Records and Documents? (If you’ve saved records from online, are these still in your downloads folder on your computer? Do you have important records simply “attached” to your online family tree, and aren’t actually saved to your computer? What about scanned documents? What about documents that have been emailed to you? Did you take a trip to a library and never took the records off your flash drive?)
  • Family videos or audio? (This includes digitized or non-digitized files from old film or VHS or cassettes, and digital videos or audio of recent family history events that may have been recorded with a digital video camera or smartphone. Examples include videos of a wedding, birthday, or family reunion, or an oral interview you did with a relative…)
  • Digital correspondence? (Have you received any important emails with family history information that you need to save? Have you written to cousins using the messaging feature within your genealogy accounts online, such as Ancestry or MyHeritage?)

 

You probably won’t remember all the kinds of files that you’ve ever had, or where exactly all of them are stored. You should also make a list of all the digital media (aka devices that are used to store digital files, like hard drives, CDs, etc.) that you could have possibly stored any genealogy stuff on, and plan to go through each of them to check its contents. Your genealogy files could be intermingled with your other personal files, and you’ll probably find files that you forgot that you had. Use this checklist to help you remember and locate all the different kinds of media that you could have used to store your genealogy files.

african american black woman casual chair
Make your list of all the possible places where you’ve kept your genealogy files. You’ll go through this list one by one to archive the files in each location!

Look for genealogy files or information in:

  • Current computers or laptops
  • Old computers or laptops
  • Tablets (current and old)
  • Smartphones or camera phones (current and old)
  • External hard drives (current and old)
  • Flash drives, Zip drives, floppy discs (current and old)*
  • DVDs, CDs, SD cards (current and old)*
  • Cassettes, VHS, film reels**
  • Email accounts
  • Online file storage accounts (Dropbox, GoogleDrive, OneDrive, etc.)
  • Online genealogy databases/accounts (Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Geni.com, WikiTree, etc.)
  • Online photo storage accounts (Flickr, Adobe Creative Cloud, Google Photos, etc.)
  • Online social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc.)
  • Online websites that may contain family history information that you want to save

Click here to get my free downloadable checklist for Finding your Digital Genealogy Files!

 

You now have two lists that should encompass all your genealogy files. Look them over and identify where you’d like to start organizing your files. I recommend starting with your current computer, or wherever you currently keep the bulk of your genealogy “stuff,” since these files will probably be the most recently used and fresh in your mind. You’ll eventually make your way through all the rest of your files, so don’t get overwhelmed! Plan to do a little bit at a time, and eventually all the files that you want to save will make their way into your archive.

Now that you’ve located the genealogy files that should be put into your archive, your next step will be to create the archive and decide how you’ll organize it. So, take a deep breath, and let’s get started!

Read the next post, “Organizing Your New Digital Archive.”


Archiving Your Digital Genealogy Files


*If you have media that you can no longer access (for example, you no longer have a way to read floppy discs), put a star next to that media on your list, and if you suspect that it has files that were not copied to any of your other devices, you’ll need to make a plan later for accessing that media. Some libraries or private stores in your area may have equipment that you can borrow that will allow you to read that media.

 

**Although film, VHS and cassettes are technically analog media, since they store information physically and not digitally, I’ve included them on this list because they are dependent on specific media to access the information stored on it, and these formats and media are slowly degrading and becoming obsolete. If you have any of these kinds of video or audio that you’d like to add to your Digital Family History Archive, now is a good time to digitize these items.

8 thoughts on “Archiving Your Digital Family History Files (#1): Find Your Digital “Stuff”

  1. This is very daunting. I’m thankful that most of what I have was done by relatives in the pre-digital age and is therefore on paper. I should be able to get what I’ve done digitally into an organized digital archive, once I see your system for doing it.

    Like

    1. It seems very daunting, but I encourage you to do it one small piece at a time! One folder on your computer, or one device at a time. Once you’ve established a rhythm of how you’re going to organize it, it becomes a lot easier!

      Liked by 1 person

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