Why You Should Quit Attaching Records to Your Family Tree and What to Do Instead

Why You Need to Quit Attaching Records to Your Family Tree, and What to Do Instead

It wasn’t all that long ago that genealogists stored their family trees offline. These ‘old school’ family researchers owned actual physical copies of the records they had collected and carefully cataloged and stored them in elaborate file systems in their homes (you know who you are).

Later, most of us switched to family tree programs on our computers that we purchased from a local software store or by mail. We took those actual, paper records and scanned and attached them to our fancy new family tree program for safe keeping and easy reference. This provided a whole new way to store and organize our research and show it off to family and friends.

A lot has changed since that time. Although many of us still use offline family tree programs, most of us choose to sync to online trees as well, or we may only keep our tree(s) online. And a surprising number of people are storing and updating their trees in more than one location.

It is not uncommon for someone to have a tree on a paid site like Ancestry or MyHeritage, as well as on a free, collaborative site like FamilySearch AND in a DNA database such as Family Tree DNA – in addition to an offline program.

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This ever-increasing availability of places to store and share family trees has many benefits (and a few downsides) but it has also created one major problem for researchers – access to attached records.

Unlike in the days when we ONLY stored our tree on our own computer, keeping the connection between a tree and its source records is tricky. Many family historians are shocked to find that when they try to download their family tree from an online site, or export it from their computer program, that they lose the connection to all of their records.

A record collected as part of research online, or downloaded and attached to a family tree, can not be transferred easily from one place to another. That is because the standard method for transferring genealogical data is with a GEDCOM – and GEDCOMs transfer data, not scanned images, documents or attached text files. Find out more about using GEDCOMs to transfer data in this article.

That means that if you want to download your tree off of Ancestry and upload it to the new family tree program RootsFinder, for instance, or export a copy from your offline program and share it via email, the new copy will no longer be connected to your actual records. And we all know how important it is to have accessible sources attached to a tree – they add depth and validity to our research. Separating source records from a tree is a recipe for confusion and mistakes.

Of course, a GEDCOM will transfer your source citations so that others know where you found your data, but people you share it with will not have direct access to those sources. If the database you collected your source record from is online, and the source citation was entered correctly, a person could conceivably access some of your records – but if the record is behind a paywall, or if the database you collected it from is not accessible anymore (this happens ALL of the time), there is a complete disconnect. And, of course, records you stored on your computer will be completely inaccessible.

Not only will people you share your tree with only be getting part of the story – losing access to critical details found in original records – you will not have easy access to this information either. If you move your tree to another location, online or off, you will have to manually reattach all of your records and photos one by one if you (or others) want to have access to them in that location.

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Even family tree programs that sync with online versions often don’t sync actual records, just data. There are a couple of exceptions to this and you can read about that here.

This reality makes moving a tree in its complete form, or sharing our research with others, nearly impossible. It’s easy enough to move a GEDCOM, and even update it semi-regularly, but moving attached sources one by one is impractical for anyone who regularly collects records.

And, if you’re thinking to yourself right now “Well, I will just keep my tree in one spot forever,” we hope you will think again. That’s one of the fastest ways to accidentally lose all of your hard work. Plus, software programs change, online sites come and go, and eventually you are bound to have to move everything.

Every time we publish an article about family tree software or programs, or provide news about a new way to use your tree online, we get the same question – “How can I safely transfer my family tree and keep all of my records?”

And there IS a solution. It’s actually quite simple and, in many instances, completely free. 

How to Start Linking to Your Genealogy Records in Your Family Tree

The solution to this problem is to stop attaching your records to your family tree and start linking to them from one accessible online location. Or, if you want to continue to attach records to your main tree for ease of access, to continue to do that AND also link to them.

Here’s how it works.

In a normal situation when you are doing family history research and find a new record you create a source citation and then attach the record you collected to that citation (whether it is a scanned document, photo, or text record).

If you are researching on Ancestry, MyHeritage and some other big sites, and are also using their tree, then the site does this for you.

If you are doing research in most other situations, then you would download the records and attach them manually. Some of you may link instead to the online record and not attach at all (although we addressed above why this is not a good idea – given that online databases are not constants).

Either of these actions means that your records are now attached to your tree in the proper location for sourcing, which is vitally important, but when you create a GEDCOM, and transfer that tree, the records will no longer be accessible in that new tree. 

This is where linking comes in. Imagine for a second that you had all of your records, in whatever form, stored in an online location, and that you provided a link to that location in your source citation instead of trying to attach the actual record that is so difficult to transfer. That would change everything. Now, everyone has access to the record whenever they need it, from any copy of your tree.

There are many free or low-cost cloud storage solutions online that are easy to use. And, you can make them private or public.

Implementing this new system is as simple as this:

  1. When researching, download the genealogy record you need
  2. Upload the record to the cloud location of your choice
  3. Grab the link for that record
  4. Add the link to your source citation
  5. Now, whenever you transfer your tree you, and everyone you choose to share it with, will have access to your records.

Here’s a walk-through of this linking process with screenshots.

1. Find a Cloud Service You Like and Trust

We have just published an article about different cloud services that are good for genealogical use. The services included in that article are those you may already be using for other reasons and are either free or low-cost options. It will help you find a cloud solution.

Organizational systems like Evernote, Trello and Google Keep are also good ways to store files and links can be created and shared through these systems as well.

When choosing a system make sure to find one that has the private vs public options you need. You will, for instance, want your files to be available via a public link so others can view your records – but you don’t necessarily want them made public to others than those viewing your tree.

In this example we are using Google Drive because many people have a Gmail account and they provide 15GB of free storage, more than enough for many people. Additional storage starts at 100GB a month for just a couple of dollars. The system is available on desktop or mobile.

To use this solution to store and link to your records start by visiting Google Drive here. If you do not already have a Gmail account you can get one free when you visit the page.

Now look at the upper left corner and select “New” and then “Folder” to create a location to store your genealogy records in. Once you have created a folder you will see it appear in the middle of your screen.

Create New Folder for Genealogy Files on Google Drive

2. Upload and Organize Your Records

Click on the folder and upload your genealogy record or records by clicking “New” and then “File Upload.” You can add files in batches or one by one.

If you have many files to sort you can easily add subfolders by selecting “New” and “Folder” again inside of this genealogy folder. Not only is this a wonderful way to back up and organize your files, you can now create links to each file to put in your tree.

Upload Files and Create Subfolders for Genealogy Records on Google Drive

3. Create the Link to Your Record or Folder

To create a shareable link to place in your tree simply right-click (long press on mobile) and select “Get shareable link.” A box will come up allowing you to turn link sharing on for that file. Although files and folders are private by default in Google Drive this link will allow anyone with it to access the file.

You can even create a shareable link to an entire folder by doing the same thing on the folder itself. This allows you to share batches of files (collections of photos, records with more than one page etc) on a source citation at one time.

Create Shareable Link on Google Drive Each cloud storage system is unique. Take the time to understand how the one you choose works, including how you can provide access to individual files and folders, before moving forward. Google Drive, for instance, also has the option to make an entire folder or file completely public – and this is different than offering a shareable link.

4. Add the Link to Your Source Citation

Now that you have your shareable link, all you have to do is find your source citation and add it. Here’s how we did it on Ancestry.

This area can be accessed by clicking on “View,” under the “Sources” section on a person’s profile and selecting “Citation Details” and “Edit Citation.”

Notice how we didn’t place the link in the “Web Address” location since this should be reserved for information about where the record is stored in its main repository online (if one exists). Instead we made a note letting anyone who accesses our tree know where a copy of the original record can be found.

Most family tree programs have some sort of location that you can add a link like this to within the source citation – even if it is just as a note. The important thing is to keep the link WITH the other information about your source. Also, avoid hyperlinking in HTML files or docs and rather just add the plain link to avoid issues in the future if formatting changes.

In this case, our tree on Ancestry also has records attached. This is OK too. Attaching and linking is fine. ONLY attaching is where we run into problems.

Now that we have added this link, if we download our tree from Ancestry and move it somewhere else anyone viewing it will have easy access to the attached record. We don’t have to worry about someone (or even our self) not having access to the record in the future – no matter where it is stored.

Of course, if you have many records already you may feel like the job of adding links is just too much. But remember that there is a good likelihood that you will have to (or want to ) copy or move your tree in the future and the work you do now will pay off in the end. Take it slow and plan to do 10 links a day or something of the sort until it is done. Or save time by linking to folders of records instead. This is not as ideal, but will work in a pinch.

5. Make Sure You Have a Back Up

While this whole process is a form of backing up your genealogy research – you should always, always have your research stored in more than one location (preferably three places). That includes all records. Read this article about backing up for more help.

Although this may seem like a lot of work, taking the time to start linking now will prove to have endless benefits to you in the future. As opportunities to share your research grow you’ll be glad you implemented a simple solution to keep your research well-organized, documented and shareable.

Also Read:

Stop ‘Saving’ Records to Your Ancestry Tree Until You Read This

Ancestry Isn’t the Only Site With Record Hints

By Melanie Mayo-Laakso, Family History Daily Editor

Image: “4 P.M. Right – Frank Pristare, 456 Sixth St. 11 years old. Work “ain’t good. Sells to a half-dozen customers, and a few extras. Spends all his money. Left – Chas. Ciensola, 115 Grand St. 14 years old and been selling 6 yrs. Mother takes in washing. Smokes hard, and attends tubercular clinic. Is in opportunity class, and grades no higher than 2 B. Compare with 10 year old boy. Location: Hoboken, New Jersey.” Library of Congress

19 thoughts on “Why You Need to Quit Attaching Records to Your Family Tree, and What to Do Instead”

  1. Many commenters seem to misunderstand the problem. They utilize two different platforms which are **designed to work together** and think this solves the problem. But they are wrong.

    Just because you can sync between RootsMagic and Ancestry.com does not help you if you want to share your work with someone who uses MyHeritage.com or MacFamilyTree, OR if you need to migrate to a new platform or software. For that you will need to use a GEDCOM file, and here is what Ancestry says about those files and attached media:

    “GEDCOM files are a universally-accepted file format for family tree files. A GEDCOM file is a text-only file that contains all of the facts and information for a tree; ***photos, media, and similar items are not included.***”

    THAT is the problem Melanie is providing a solution for.

  2. This discussion seems timeless, at least it all seems still true and relevant in March 2022. A few exceptions that emphasize the importance of multiple backups, that include copies all of all media Rootsmagic has released version 8, that many users have decided is not ready to fully replace version 7. Family Tree Maker FTM2019 is now 3 years old and struggles with ongoing changes in how Ancestry alters source or citation links, making it problematic to regain access to on-line records created years ago. Well written article and useful comments from readers.

  3. I really don’t understand. RootsMagic does all that for me when I sync-and-download my tree from Ancestry. Why do I want to redo it all by hand when it’s automatically done for me?

  4. Truth! I was going to say the same thing. I have all my Ancestry records on my computer … linked just like they say. Why do I want to do it by hand?

  5. Frankly, just getting going and building a database of my own records and ones my mother created over a 20 year span in 3 ring binders. However, let me add a couple of thoughts to this discussion. I am using google drive more or less the same way described above with the Chrome Browser. I store my records in a predetermined format b0000-d0000,{FamilyName,GivenNames,RecType,etc., I use an add-on to the Chrome Browser called Nimbus. Within the Nimbus toolbox, I create the record naming format and I tell it where I want the records saved to my hard drive first. So that anytime I save the document, snip, etc. from Nimbus, it is assigned this record format and pops up on the download menu saving a lot of typing and keeping the records organized and sorted the way I want them. I keep them in a download file pending editing and uploading to Google Drive. Once I get the record named appropriately or any other editing, I upload to Google Drive Obviously, you can create folders, etc. to organize them further. HERE IS THE BIG PAYOFF not mentioned – With this set-up, the search tool within google drive will dive down within the record detail, whether jpeg, pdf, etc. . So, let’s say you have a jpeg or PDF with a bunch of names on it, the search tool will find it there or within the filename itself. POWERFUL. If I have a record, say like an old death certificate written mostly in cursive, or an old photo, I will create a Text Box somewhere on the document not being used with standard format info like dob=, dod=, etc., etc., anything I might want to search at a later date. If you keep it standardized, it will aid the search later. It will search within most news type of decent quality. Allows me to keep the file name brief, standardized, etc. I can call it something else more descriptive in the source notations. FYI – I am not a techy guy. My son guided me to this solution. Good to have kids smarter than you on some topics.

  6. This is interesting. As a matter of habit built before automated transfers to online trees, I always download or scan images of ALL online and paper records, photos, typed interviews with family, and other articacts into one Archive, by family line. I can then crop, brighten, etc., and rename them (surname-firstname or groupname-year-event.) I back the archive (and my desktop trees) up to removable media and to the cloud. Most desktop software automatically creates a linked Media folder for images. As you add media to your destop program, it automatically creates links to the place you pull them from (so you must keep the location and filename the same). In FTM, you can choose add the actual image file instead, and not just the link. I own several desktop programs (don’t ask), and primarily use FTM. If I create a gedcom, I have all my associated images by family line and name in my Archive folder, and yes, I would have to relink them. I do not store my entire working tree on Ancestry or MyHeritage (I don’t want hints for inlaws of inlaws). I no longer use shared trees like the one on Family Search because my researched and verified data was often changed by someone. I generally do not sync, and I keep source citations for everything I add. Although I love hearing about different ways to store and secure data, I don’t think this one’s for me at this point. I’m not confident enough in the permanence any cloud storage facility to put this kind of time into creating individual links for thousands of images acquired over 30 years. I just need my backups, and quick access, online or offline, to all my media. That said, it would be nice if all future gedcoms created by all programs, would store image links. Then all you would need is your image folder stored in the designated drive shown in those links to transfer images with your data.

  7. Heartily agree on the use of Rootsmagic. It allows backup to Dropbox in the Cloud. I have a huge database of both people and media and it takes it all. Rootsmagic also allows data sharing with Family Search. I frequently use Ancestry and keep half the screen open on Ancestry Family Tree and half on my Rootsmagic program so I can coordinate and copy digital images and information back and forth. Rootsmagic also can do internet searches on Fold 3, Family Search, Find A Grave, Find MY Past, My Heritage, Genealogy Bank, World Heritage and more.

  8. I use the RootsMagic 7 to backup and sync with my ancestory.com family tree account
    – it saves all my sources, documents. whether jpeg or pdf
    – and I have tested it to open a Free new family tree in ancestory.com successfully
    – so I feel this type of program is simple and saves all the effort of trying to reorganize as discussed in this post ?

  9. Enlightening discussion. Key takeaway should be to never have your records in only one place.

  10. And RootsMagic has Tree Share with Ancestry. So, you can download with a couple of clicks your Ancestry trees complete with all the Ancestry records and personal media attached to it. You can do this with the free version, but you can produce a greater variety of reports with the paid version.

  11. I use an outside hard drive to store my records after I save them from Ancestry to Family Tree Maker. I did not see this mentioned. Are my records safe?

  12. I am having a difficult time with all of this. I have DropBox, have TRIED to understand Evernote to no avail, and have come to a full stop.
    What I envision is a simple page (no, Pages is too cumbersome when aligning the attachments) for each person, contained within a file for the family name, etc. on each page (obviously more than one) are the copies/scans of the documents, photos, notes & stories that I have found for that person. I don’t care about the links (heresy!). I want a digital scrapbook that I can flip through, that I can share as an old-fashioned email attachment, that contain the “real” thing!
    I continue to search Apps but nothing fits. I want my stuff in my hands, but without the physical notebooks. Am I crazy? Probably. Does such a simple application exist? Must I create my own? OK, I’m game.

  13. George, I have been doing genealogy research since 1972 and I feel your pain. But why don’t you beat Ancestry’s move by going into just your direct line and quickly attaching a few census records to a few families. They are so easy to find and attach. And you might look in a search of a few relatives for Pictures and find new ones that have been shared by distant cousins, as I have.

    Is there a threshold of how many records must be attached per Tree or do their robots just detect that there are none and give you the ax?
    That would keep your Trees available for others in Searches, which is your goal.

  14. Roy, what program do you use on your computer? I use RootsMagic and have been able to download all my stuff just fine.

  15. I haven’t had this issue. I have a tree on Ancestry and downloaded it into RootsMagic. All my media files downloaded just fine. I can go into the folder on my hard drive and see them.

  16. I’m not so sure those shareable links in the cloud are perpetual. I can only speak from experience with OneDrive, but we have an encrypted spreadsheet of family contact info that is kept in the cloud. The link is available on our secret family FB page and since it’s inception (maybe 5 or 6 years, ago), I’ve had to update that link many times as it goes dead. I am very careful to NEVER move the file in the cloud, it’s always resided in the same folder, but the link goes bad. Maybe the cloud companies move data around their various servers, or any such scenario (I’ve never researched it further). Your process is def awesome, if it was guaranteed that link will always work and you don’t have to check them and edit them, periodically. Just an FYI.

  17. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You for again informing us about this problem with GEDCOM files. Ancestry removed my trees for not being sourced, which means attached to records on ancestry. Bibles, familysearch, USGENWEB, and any records not on ancestry do not count. So my trees are not visible or searchable as they were for years.

    To start with I have 11 trees on ancestry and rootsweb.com.
    Rootsweb.com shows your tree, notes and sources, but not images of the sources citation. Ancestry.com has sources/records you can attach, but are lost if you download your tree as GEDCOM file. If you do your tree offline and you update your tree at ancestry, you need to upload a new GEDCOM. At some point the older version needs to be deleted. If you attached records being images, they are lost with the delete and the new upload will not reconnect any record/images to the new tree uploaded. So I never attached records online at ancestry, but are fully sourced in text.. So now they say all trees not attached to records will not be entered into the searches. Their solution is the users can find you in the users lists, but how do the know I have genealogy on their family line. So they now have 3 ways to display trees, Public, Private, and HIDDEN. My trees are HIDDEN at ancestry and no one can find or see them except me. These 11 trees were the legacy trees ancestry used to compile their hints that create the new FREE TREES. But these hints do not make trees, early researchers where the ones who did the work and ancestry just sells your links to make ancestry trees.

    As of October 2017 ancestry.com removed my trees from the Public tree search engine with many other legacy trees because, the names were not attached to records on ancestry. They told be names not attached to records (Census image etc) will not show in searches. If you make your trees Private the names still appear in searches, but lead to a private screen which requires user contact with the private tree owner. My legacy trees and your are hidden.
    So GEDCOM files and offline tree programs are useless at ancestry.com and I’m praying rootsweb.com returns after it crashed supposedly to rebuild the insecure rootsweb.com.

    Save the web page link (Favorite/Bookmark) URL to a folder.
    Save the web page record as a pdf file to the same folder.
    Save the image as a jpeg file to the same folder
    Name the storage folder with the name of the family member Ie “Alcurtis Myers 1883-1961”
    Do this for every record saved.

    Another method is insert the URL for the image into your sources. Check this link to see how it appears on rootsweb.com, clickable links to ancestry.com, familysearch.org and any record that can be viewed on the web. Check it out. The URL are entered into your sources. You have a permanent URL link in your GEDCOM file.

    Check the sources at the bottom of this rootsweb page for the links, in this example they are at ancestry.com.


    I have saved every images to every source shown in my trees, thousands of folder and backed up daily.
    But until rootsweb returns to full service, and ancestry returns legacy trees to the search engine, then my trees are trash and your will be also if this move to online is continued without deleting legacy family trees.

    The real solution is all offline programs (ie Legacy Family Tree) to build in syncing with online, and linked online image URL’s embedded into the source citations of the GEDCOM synced to your offline tree.

  18. Two comments:

    Aren’t you just moving your risk, from “will Ancestry (or whomever) always be there?” to “will Google Drive (or whomever) always be there?”

    Having a link in your private genealogy program on your personal computer to a cloud-stored image isn’t a problem, but publicly posting that link– as may happen if you’re syncing it to your tree on Ancestry, so your source data appears on their site– may violate the Terms of Service of the site where you originally obtained the image.

  19. I am devastated by this. Thousands of hours of work and thousands of records and photos down the drain. Thank you for the alert but your solution also is unworkable for me to start reorganizing this mountain of information one my one. Surely there is an easier solution to capturing what has been done through our family tree providers. Just recently I had to restore my family tree builder program and MyHeritage sent me a GEDCOM file with all the data, records, and photos attached. How did they do that?

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