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What to Do When You Inherit Family History Research

The Simple Steps to Take When You Inherit Family History Research

Some of us inherit our itch to research our roots from another family member. More often than not, that genealogy gene comes with lots of literal baggage — in the form of boxes full of photocopies, binders packed with handwritten charts and scattered stacks of scribbled notes amassed over a lifetime. 

For a fledgling family historian, receiving a collection like this might seem like the perfect ready-made foundation from which to build new branches. Even the experienced genealogist would consider it a windfall. However, inheriting someone else’s genealogy research can be both a gift and a curse. So before you dig into Great Aunt Martha’s trove of tattered treasures, check out these tips and best practices.

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Step 1: Employ caution

Any secondary source of genealogical information — including someone else’s genealogical conclusions — should be fully evaluated before being accepted as fact. For the same reasons we at Family History Daily warn that you should never treat another person’s online tree as a valid source, it’s never a good idea to assume your newly-acquired collection of data is absolutely accurate.

This is understandably challenging when you’re talking about the work of a trusted family member. Of course, you want to believe that person would be as meticulous and dedicated to his or her research as you would be — after all, they’ve probably been your family’s go-to historian for generations. 

Often, your benefactor is much older than you, and you’re receiving their beloved collection because they’ve retired from research or have passed away. Your genealogist’s brain wants to believe that because this person theoretically had access to now-deceased relatives and their recollections and/or witnessed some of your family’s history first-hand, they naturally know more than you could ever uncover on your own.

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At least, that’s what I believed when my maternal grandmother passed away and I found among her possessions a binder full of her cousin’s family history research. I was fascinated by the family group sheets, copies of letters to and from repositories and distant relatives, and hand-penned narratives she had created — and I took it all at face value, dutifully copying her information into my family history software. Unfortunately, as I honed my own skills and worked to take her research further, I realized she had reached some erroneous conclusions that actually sent me off on some time-wasting rabbit trails.

So, as you sort through your newly-inherited family history collection, keep these tips in mind — and your expectations in check. You may find that this research is incredibly well-researched, accurate, and fully documented, but until then, proceed with caution.

Step 2: Organize your inheritance

While some of us are gifted a single family history binder or scrapbook, most people inherit an assortment of items, from photographs and documents to letters and newspaper clippings. You don’t necessarily want to disassemble bound collections, but it’s much easier to deal with piles of papers and ephemera when it’s sorted and organized.

If you’ve already established an organization system for your own genealogy research, try sorting through this new material in the same manner. For example, if you’ve set up paper and computer files based on the type of record, time period, generation, or surnames, you’ll do the same with your inherited items.

If you’re new to genealogy or don’t have an organizational process in place you might want to try the straightforward system we teach in our detailed online Organization for Family Historians course.

Using labeled bins, folders, or just a cleared space on your floor or dining room table, separate the material into surnames, using maiden names for females. Remember, this is just a first pass; later, you can sort your collection into more precise family groups. If you have questions about which family a document or photo belongs to, start a new “For Review” pile that you can go back and review more closely. 

Lastly, understand this doesn’t have to be done all in one day. You can always pick up with the next step at another time.

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Step 3: Evaluate and integrate

Now it’s time to really review the information you’ve inherited. If you already have an ample collection from your own genealogy research, you may realize that some of the new items may actually be duplicates. For example, most “old school” family historians’ collections include photocopies of census records, pages from library books, and lots of other records that are now widely available online. If you’ve already saved digital copies, and your inherited versions don’t include any new information (notes in the margins, references to other resources, etc.), you can toss these duplicates without guilt.

You may know at a glance that some of the material you inherit will be great additions to your own research. For example, letters (or copies of them) to and from family members, correspondence from repositories, obituaries, and the like often provide unique clues or additional facts. Just be sure to include the source of these pieces when integrating them into your own files or database.

Take the time to read through each page of the remainder of your relative’s research, carefully comparing the information within to the genealogical data you’ve already collected and verified. If you come across new data — or a brand new family member — consult the original source of the information if possible and do what you can to ensure the information pertains to the correct individuals. Done properly, this could be a tedious process — but it will be totally worthwhile when you realize how much your relative’s research has enhanced your family tree!

Step 4: Scan, share, and store

If your family tree and its collateral documentation are maintained and stored digitally, scan each piece of your inherited collection and attach it to the proper ancestor(s). Be diligent about adding source citations to these files, and keep a digital copy in your computer for safekeeping. In our organization course we recommend creating and sticking to one naming convention for your digital assets so they’ll be easier to identify later. 

As most family historians eventually learn, collaboration is one of the best aspects of genealogy. If you’re excited about your newfound documents, photos, and clippings, chances are your fellow researchers will be, as well. It’s wonderful to share your inherited research with others, either online or in person, but once again (we can’t say this enough), be sure whatever you send to someone else or post to your public online tree is properly cited.

The final step in dealing with your relative’s collection of family history is to store it for safekeeping. General paperwork — photocopies, typed documents, certificates, etc. — can be safely stacked and stored in file folders, file boxes, or plastic bins. Delicate items like photographs, handwritten letters, old news clippings, or fragile papers should be handled with care using archival quality sleeves and boxes and stored in a temperature-controlled, dry space.

For more guidance on proper storage and display, check out these Family History Daily articles or take an online course:

If storage is an issue for you, consider asking another relative or perhaps your local archive or library if they would accept the donation of your inherited cache — after you’ve scanned and saved everything, of course. 

Lastly, when it comes time for you to hand down your own genealogy collection to the next family historian, remember the process you went through to organize and purge your inheritance(s) so your recipient will be happily gifted with a well-cited, sorted, and conserved treasure trove. 

Patricia Hartley has been researching family history for over 30 years and has an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University. She’s a member of the Alabama Genealogical Society, Association of Professional Genealogists, National Genealogical Society, International Society of Family History Writers, Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society, Natchez Trace Genealogical Society and the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review. 

Image: “Photo shows the interior of the Library of Congress while it was located inside of the U.S. Capitol building.” LoC [1897]

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