Prove It!

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Not long after I began my family history pursuit, I found a copy of a genealogy completed by a now-deceased relative in the 1970s. At first glance it seemed like a genealogical treasure trove which would save countless hours work on my part. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. This well-meaning relative completely ignored a fundamental rule of sound genealogical research: cite your sources! Instead of providing a much-welcomed “short cut,” this genealogy turned into a decades-long research project as I continue to seek verification of his (sometimes wildly incorrect) information.

Without proper documentation of sources, a genealogy is nothing but someone’s conjecture on what might be true. I certainly appreciate my relative’s hard work and dedication which provided a good starting point for my own work. At the same time, if I knew and could verify his sources, I wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Once the genealogy bug bites, most of us spend countless hours shaking our family tree in search of ripe fruit. Let’s make sure we pass on something useful to future generations.

As I tell my college students, proper citation of sources allows those who follow in your wake to pick up your research trail. The same holds true in genealogical research. The entire concept of proper citation of sources comes down to nothing more than providing a way to ensure that researchers following you can know the source of your information. Following commonly accepted standards for citations is best, but if you at least provide the needed information in some complete way, shape, or form, is far better than completely ignoring this critical aspect of genealogical research.

Different sources have different conventions as far as citing those sources. However, in general all citations contain the same general information: what it is, who created it, when it was created, where it’s located, and when did you access it. Remember, a complete citation should provide a trail someone can follow from your work back to the original source. The standard reference work for citing genealogical sources is Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifact to Cyberspace, Second Edition by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Company, 2012). Other useful works in include Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997) and Cite Your Sources: A Manual for Documenting Family Histories and Genealogical Records by Richard S. Lackey (University Press of Mississippi, 1980). The recently published Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones (National Genealogical Society, 2013) also contains an excellent section on proper citation of genealogical records.

Let’s learn from my relative’s omission. Let’s make it a point to properly cite our sources so that our work proves beneficial to others years from now by not making them “reinvent the wheel.”

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The Digital Dark Ages?

Martha Harrison, c. 1910 (Author's Collection)

Martha Harrison, c. 1910 (Author’s Collection)

We often hear the quip that real estate is all about “location, location, location.” Allow me to introduce another one for your digital files and images: “backup, backup, backup.” With our ever increasing reliance on digital media as our preferred method of storage, if we’re not careful, we can unwittingly setup a period which future historians and genealogists might refer to as the “Digital Dark Ages.”

When you computer dies (note carefully, I didn’t say “if”), any data which was not properly backed-up is almost certainly lost. If not lost outright, the process to recover data is not easy or inexpensive. Trust me on this one – I speak from the voice of experience as one who lost a large amount of irreplaceable early photos of our children due to not heeding those words: “backup, backup, backup.”

Proper storage of digital media begins with your computer. Make sure you know how to correctly save files. Also, make sure you devise a filing system as you would with physical media so that you (or someone else) can find important information later. Computers make this easy with the ability to create a nearly endless chain of files. For example, you might have a file named “Genealogy,” in this main folder, you might have various sub-folders named for family surnames or for the type of information in the file (i.e. “Images,” “Birth Certificates,” etc.). You sub-folders then contain other folders to further break-down and help index your information. This helps avoid the frustration of searching your computer for that one file you know you saved sometime last year – again the voice of experience speaking.

Once files are properly saved on your computer, we must begin thinking “backup, backup, backup.” It’s imperative to have both “onsite” and “offsite” backup. Onsite back up is accomplished by both saving copies of your data to external hard drives (these are better designed for long-term storage than “thumb drives”) and to CDs or DVDs. Safe backup is all about redundancy. By following this step, you create two copies of your data on two different systems. Keep these copies in separate locations in your home, so if one is lost, stolen or damaged, hopefully you have the other one available. Even accomplishing this step puts you much further ahead in the backup game than the vast majority of people.

However, onsite backup is only half the story. The unexpected happens: fire, theft, and, in Florida, hurricanes. We cannot rely solely on our onsite backup to protect irreplaceable files. We should also use “offsite” backup – or in the new term-of-the-day “cloud” storage. This means using a service such as Carbonite to save your files to offsite servers. Even if the worst happens, your critical data remains retrievable.

When it comes to offsite backup of digital images, be very careful about the service you use. Most of the “free” image sites call themselves “photo sharing” services. This means they’re primarily concerned with allowing you to share your images online with others, and, more importantly to these companies, for you and others to buy copies of the images. Most people fail to read the fine print of the terms for these companies. Many require minimum purchases of their products within a certain timeframe, or they delete your images. Others charge you a significant fee to retrieve digital copies of your images – even worse, if you’re using a high-quality camera, the copies you must pay to retrieve are down-graded from what you uploaded. My advice for genealogists or other serious image makers is to completely avoid the “free” photo-sharing sites – remember, you get what you pay for.

The two professional online image storage and sharing sites are and I believe professional sites are best since they’re designed for photographers to upload and (more importantly) download their images. Each site offers similar services for digital images, however SmugMug additionally offers the ability to upload HD video and access to SmugVault to backup your other important files for a nominal fee. Check out their sites and read reviews to see which might best serve your needs.

Whatever you do, do not ignore those important words: backup, backup, backup! Don’t wait for the inevitable computer crash to decide to do something. Come up with a plan for safe storage of your digital media – and put it in action today!

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History of Sleeping Solutions

Here’s an interesting info-graphic from showing how our ancestors slept:



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Visual Genealogy: Tips on Photographic Preservation

Tintype, c. 1870s, subject unknown (Author's Collection)

Tintype, c. 1870s, subject unknown (Author’s Collection)

For me, photographs are one of the most powerful genealogical records. Stacks of vital records can tell us about a long-departed ancestor, but there’s nothing like a photograph to really bring that person “alive.” With this in mind, I thought it might be helpful, or at least interesting, to provide a series of short insights into photography as it relates to genealogy.

I’ve enjoyed a keen interest in photography for as long as I can remember. Looking through shoeboxes of old family photos was always a pleasant way to pass an afternoon. My favorite “end-of-school-year-good-grades” present was a Canon AE-1 Program 35mm SLR camera following my freshman year of high school. I’ve remained a diehard photo aficionado since that time. Hopefully some of the things I’ve picked up along the way might prove useful to others.

Without proper preservation, all photographs will deteriorate and become lost to time. If we don’t protect our visual media, chasing down when the images were made or who’s in them, while important, becomes something of a moot point. Therefore, I thought a good starting point for a discussion on photography might be some tips on preserving photos.

The two most important factors in photographic preservation are temperature and humidity. Unfortunately for those of us in Florida, both need to be low. Ideal temperature is under 68° and humidity should be in the 30% to 40% range. Uncontrolled high humidity (70%) can cause mold growth on photographs and film (slides and negatives).

To help prevent fading and deterioration, limit the exposure to light of photos, negatives and film. Direct sunlight rapidly fades photographic images. With this in mind, don’t display the originals of irreplaceable photos; instead make a copy for display. Keep the original safely archived. Archival boxes, which are acid free, are the best bet for long-term storage of photographic visual media.

Be careful to handle photos, slides, and negatives only by the edges – and only to the minimum extent necessary. If you touch the surface of a photo, slide, or negative, the oils in your fingers leave nearly irremovable blemishes and can cause serious deterioration. Ideally, photos, slides, and negatives should be handled with white cotton gloves (available from photographic and archival supply stores).

Avoid writing directly on the back of photographs with ink pens or markers; likewise don’t attach adhesive labels to the backs of photographs. Over time, the acids in the ink and adhesives “bleed through,” damaging the photo. A soft lead pencil is safest for writing on the backs of photos. For modern photographic prints, which have a plastic coating on the back, archival pens are available.

Finally, if you have photos in self-adhesive photo albums (sometimes called “magnetic” photo albums), remove the photos and toss the albums. These albums are not archival quality and the acids in the adhesives and paper will damage photos left in them too long. Similarly, avoid using clear plastic photo album pages containing PVC for long-term storage.

Fortunately, archival-quality preservation and storage solutions are not expensive and easily obtainable thanks to the Internet. One source I’ve had good luck with for archival supplies is Light Impressions (

Hopefully, with this short article, I’ve at least got you thinking about archival protection of photographs and film. If there’s interest, I’d be happy to continue with future short articles dealing with topics such as tips on dating old photos, as well as using photography (and other visual media) in our work as genealogists today.

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