Family History and Digital Preservation, part 2

In part 1 of this article, I wrote that relational databases are the engines that drive digital genealogy. Databases make it possible to quickly search through enormous quantities of records, find the person you’re looking for and discover related people and events. And when institutions collaborate and share databases, statistical information becomes enriched.

Ahnentafel Herzog Ludwig

The Lineage of Herzog Ludwig

For example, the Centre for Migration Studies in Northern Ireland collaborated with the Irish Family History Foundation, linking the Centre for Migration Studies’ database of ships’ passenger lists with Irish Family History Foundation’s database of Irish church registries. So, from one conjoined resource you can find birth and marriage information about an individual and the ship he or she emigrated on.

The Centre for Migration Studies also collaborated with Queen’s University Belfast to join three databases of differing content to create Documenting Ireland: Parliament, People and Migration. While most genealogical databases contain only text and maybe image scans of paper documents, some are beginning to enhance records with audio and video recordings. On Documenting Ireland, for example, you can listen to people talk about their lives and experiences. Similarly, you can enjoy audio and video oral history interviews on the Minnesota Historical Society website. And if you are related to any of these people, just download and add all the juicy photos and recordings to your genealogy collection. Audio and video breathe life into genealogical data.

President Warren G. Harding recording his voice

President Warren G. Harding recording his voice

The collaborative LDS Church project Community Trees also includes some audio recordings but the LDS Church uses audio selectively. David Rencher of the LDS Church is cautious about adding multimedia. He said, “Multimedia is going to become expensive to store and preserve. We would rather come up with ways that we can help you preserve it.”

There are many more types of data and files — aside from scans, photos, audio and video — that we can associate with genealogical records. For example, GPS information, accessible from most smartphones and digital cameras, can be used to mark significant places related to a person, such as former residences or the location of his or her tombstone.

With genetic genealogy, you could link a DNA profile to a record. And when relatives add their DNA profiles to a familial database, it can reveal genetic patterns. Reagan Moore is RENCI chief scientist for the DICE center at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; he is also a lifelong genealogist. He said, “If you get a genealogy map of the entire family you can see who’s at risk for certain inherited problem traits.” According to Moore, such work is going on in Scotland but naturally the practice requires discretion and data security.

S. V. Helander, "The Emigrants"

S. V. Helander, "The Emigrants"

So why would modern genealogists want to gather all this data? Brian Lambkin, director of the Centre for Migration Studies, said that adding multimedia, geospatial data and more, enriches the biographical information about a person. “Potentially there’s a biography to be written about every single individual,” said Lambkin.

Amassing a collection of digital files raises the issue of how to store and preserve that collection. Digital genealogy could result in a heap of text files (such as GEDCom files), image scans (most sites enable you to save an image in either JPEG, TIFF or PDF formats), audio files and video files. It’s best to follow the Library of Congress’s personal archiving advice, which is basically to: 1) organize everything within one collection folder, 2) backup your collection onto several storage media in several different places and 3) migrate your collection every five years or so to new storage media.

Don’t trust that a third-party genealogy service will always remain in business and keep your stuff safe forever. You should have your own copy handy and another copy backed up somewhere else.

For its part, the LDS church is committed to ongoing preservation and access of its records. It expects to store more than 100 PB of data on tape in its Granite Mountain records vault, with a copy replicated somewhere else.

Online genealogical data will continue to grow exponentially as more and more people – lured by the ease and personal reward of discovering family history – get involved and add to the information pool. There will be more history to savor and more content to fill out our collections.

It helps that genealogical researchers and family historians are being invited to contribute information, not just by genealogical institutions but also by collaborative community sites like Glenelly, Our Home, which encourages people to contribute their memories and photos of a place and identify unknown people in other photos (which can then be downloaded and added to genealogy collections).

Randy Olsen, director of libraries in the LDS Church history department, is encouraged by this emergence of citizen archivists. He said, “If we allow members of the community to build and populate their own databases they will feel a sense of ownership. And the degree to which people participate and build (genealogical) databases will pay great dividends down the road.”


  1. Reagan Moore
    September 19, 2011 at 11:29 am

    An interesting aspect of genealogy is that many persons can trace their ancestry back to a royal line. Since the European royal lines are highly inter-married, persons with a royal descent are typically 15th-20th cousins. This in turn implies that there is a core European ancestry to which persons of European descent can link their ancestry. A final aspect is that the core ancestry contains persons who fought on both sides of European conflicts. The descendants of those persons would be unable to choose which side of the conflict was right. The same will be true about our descendants.

  2. Brian
    September 19, 2011 at 11:34 am

    The picture showing the lineage of Herzog Ludwig is very attractive but it is a very odd ‘family tree’, is it not, that shows him as the trunk and his ancestors as the branches?

  3. Mike Ashenfelder
    September 19, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Herzog Ludwig’s 14th-century view of his place in the universe is certainly interesting.

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