As interest in family history research continues to grow, more and more researchers are taking the time to educate themselves about genealogy best practices so they can grow an accurate family tree. Family historians are understanding the value of doing their own unique research, avoiding copying the trees of others, and taking more time to properly source their trees for the benefit of everyone.
But a surprising number are not taking the time to do the most important thing they can do for their research – back it up. Whether from confusion about how to do so or an assumption that their data is safe wherever it is already stored, too many researchers simply don’t bother to make sure their data is safe from loss. But this step is vital. Skipping it could mean complete loss of your research.
Whether you keep your family tree on a personal computer or online at one of the big genealogy sites, you need to create a copy and store it in a safe location every month that you are actively researching. Computer crashes happen regularly and without warning and online trees, although generally well protected by the companies that hold them, are not completely resistant to loss.
If the site that holds your family tree experienced a data loss tomorrow could you rest easy knowing your data was backed up elsewhere? What about if you lost your account access and couldn’t regain it?
We’ve created a simple step-by-step guide for backing up your data below. We suggest that you take the time to follow it now so ensure that your research is safe.
Quick Guide for Backing Up a Family Tree
Step 1: Back up Your Family Tree Information as a GEDCOM
The first step in backing up your data is to create a backup file of your family history information in the form of a GEDCOM file (.ged). This is the standard file format for the transfer of family trees.
If you are creating your family tree in an offline program on your computer you need to look for the export option in that program (usually in the File menu) to export the GEDCOM file of your tree.
If you are using an online program to create your tree, such as Ancestry, you can also save a GEDCOM. We have a tutorial for how to do so from an Ancestry tree here. MyHeritage has a tutorial for how to create a GEDCOM backup from their site here.
FamilySearch does not offer an option to create a GEDCOM directly. You will have to use a third-party program or app to import your family tree data from FamilySearch and then export it as a GEDCOM. FamilySearch has created a how-to of sorts for this process here.
Other sites offer varying ways to back up but generally you can find a place to download your data as a GEDCOM file in your account. Take a moment to do this now. Once downloaded, name it something like “My Family Tree Backup June 2017.”
Step 2: Email Your GEDCOM to Yourself
Now we suggest that you email this new file to yourself. GEDCOM files are not large and a simple email with your GEDCOM attached ensures that you will have a copy of it stored online where you can easily access it at any time. This is the fastest way to may sure your core data is safe very quickly.
Step 3: Back Up Your Family History Records
While a GEDCOM saves the text-based data of your family tree – such as names, dates, relationships, citations and notes – it does not save the actual media and records you may have attached to your tree. You will have to do this separately.
If you are storing your research on your own computer you are likely already saving your records there as well. If you haven’t already done so, organize all of your family history records in one main folder (with subfolders) for easy backup.
If you have many records and photos you may want to create a compressed archive of these files to save space and make the backup process easier. In Windows you can right-click on a folder and select “Send to” and then “Compressed (zipped) Folder” to create a compressed folder. Macs offer a similar option. This creates a separate file in the same directory on your computer that you can use for back up.
If you have not been storing your records on your computer you will need to download copies of them (or if you are using a tablet or chromebook, add copies to an online storage area). Virtually no research site allows you to download all of your records at once, so the process can take a while.
On most sites you will need to access each record that is linked to your tree individually and download a copy to your computer. This is a process that is important because losing a subscription to a site often means losing access to attached records as well.
Functionality will return for full syncing between an Ancestry Tree and Family Tree Maker 2017 when FTM 2017 is fully released, but until then there is no good option for downloading all records attached to your Ancestry tree at one time. Read more about this here. MyHeritage syncs with their free Family Tree Builder offline program, but this only provides links to records – it does not back them up to your computer.
Downloading your records one by one can be very time-consuming but it is well worth it. If you have never downloaded records before you may want to start by creating a system of folders on your computer for storing these records and organizing your downloads as you save them (a main folder called “Family Records” and subfolders inside for each surname works well). Then simply choose to save records to these folders as you find them online. Some research sites offer a save button for this purpose, in other cases you will need to right-click and select “save as” or use another method for saving media.
Once you have backups of your records in one main folder you can create a compressed folder (as explained above) for additional back up to a drive or online storage account easily. See our recommendations for free or low-cost reliable options here.
Step 4: Store Your Data Safely
If you are creating your family tree online and have now also downloaded your GEDCOM and records to your computer, you may not feel the need for an additional back up effort – although we recommend doing so anyway.
However, if you are storing all of your files on your computer only you will now want to take your GEDCOM and the compressed folder containing records and store a copy of both off of your computer. This may be to an external drive – such as a physical USB thumb drive or external hard drive you keep in your home (you can buy these at most office stores or online) – or in an online cloud storage account.
Many people already have access to online storage for free, such as through their Gmail account via Google Drive (15gb free – more than enough to store many of your records) or via free unlimited photo storage on Amazon if you’re a Prime member (which can include scanned record images if uploaded as photos). Amazon Cloud Drive also offers 5gb free to anyone who signs up, even without a Prime account. Both Google and Amazon do charge after you have reached the free limit, but the prices are reasonable.
Once you gain access to an external drive or storage account add the compressed folder containing records to it as well as a copy of your GEDCOM. Do this monthly and delete backups that are more than a couple of months old to save space.
This process may seem daunting at first, but once you complete the steps you will easily be able to complete them again each month that you are actively researching. This will ensure that you never lose the research you worked so hard to collect.
Note: It is also a good idea to back up copies of your raw DNA data, screenshots of your ethnicity reports and spreadsheets of your DNA matches if you are using genetic genealogy as well.
One final tip: using an online organizational program for your genealogy research is a quick way to back up a good deal of your data while you research. This article about using Evernote for genealogy organization will get you started on that path.
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