Archive for August, 2008

How devastated would you be if you lost all of your family history data?  What if you fired up Family Tree Maker or RootsMagic tomorrow and they were unable to read any portion of your family tree?  What if your computer doesn’t even boot tomorrow when you try to turn it on?  How would you feel about losing those 1500 photos that you’ve scanned and have on your hard drive?

Hard drives do crash and files do become corrupt.  It’s not a matter of if you will lose some data, but when you’ll lose it.  If you use a computer for any length of time, you’re almost guaranteed to lose data at some point.

When you do suffer a data loss, it might be just a corrupt family history data file.  Or it might be a complete hard drive meltdown, where you lose absolutely everything.

Instead of hoping or assuming that you will never lose data, the best plan is to assume that you definitely will lose data at some point and to prepare for the day that it happens.  Your backup plan should be dependable enough that you wouldn’t suffer even a little anxiety if you discovered tomorrow that absolutely everything on your PC was lost.

Here’s my basic mantra–everything on your computer that you care about needs to be backed up.  And to make sure you can recover lost data, you should back things up in more than one way and store the backups in more than one place.

Think of backups like seat belts.  Yes, you can get away without wearing seat belts in your car for a while.  But if you ever do get in an accident, you’re going to really wish you’d been wearing your seat belt.  The same is true of backups–if (or when) you lose some data, you’re going to wish you’d taken the extra effort to back everything up.

To that end, here is a list of things that you can do to protect yourself.  These aren’t alternatives–my proposal is that you do everything on this list.  Yes, doing all of this is a pain.  But so is losing 10 years of work and having no way to get back what you’ve lost.  Do you really want to risk losing everything, for the sake of convenience?  Consider this list as–the things that you’ll wish you’d been doing after you suffer a major data loss.

1.  Identify the location of all of your genealogical data (on all machines)

The first step is to figure out what data you need to back up.  Here is a basic list of the types of data you should be most focused on.

  • Genealogy program data files
  • Generated reports
  • Scanned photos
  • Scanned documents
  • E-mail data files
  • Personal documents and writing, e.g. travelogues, lists, source data, etc.
  • Web browser favorites  (bookmarks)

I’ll go into more detail in a future post on exactly where to find things like genealogy program data files and e-mail data files.

It will also be important, when planning the next steps, to have some sense of how much data you’ll need to back up.  If you’re backing up mainly genealogy data files, this might be as little as 50-100MB.  On the other hand, if you’re like me and you have lots of high-resolution scanned photos, the amount of data might grow to as much as 100GB or more.

2.  Synchronize your data between multiple computers at home

The first technique to use, in order to protect your data, is to synchronize your data between multiple PCs at home.  I realize that not everyone has more than one PC, but it doesn’t take a very powerful machine at all to serve as a backup device–i.e. a machine that you don’t use regularly, but just store backed up files on.

Once you’ve identified the data to back up and the machine to use, you’ll want to pick a software tool that does the file synchronization for you in an automated fashion.  The basic idea is as follows–when you first install the tool, it will copy all of the data to the second machine, creating a “mirror” of the data on your main PC.  What this means is that every directory and file is duplicated on the backup machine and you could go to that machine and see the same directory/file structure as what you have on your main PC.  If anything goes wrong with the data on the first machine, you have an exact copy on the second machine, so you won’t lose anything.

Once the synchronization tool has been set up, it will run all of the time in the background and (here’s the cool part) wait until you change something on your main PC and then automatically copy the changes over to the backup machine.  In this way, you never have to worry about doing any backups yourself.  The tool takes care of everything and ensures that you always have two identical copies of all data.

The benefit of “on-site” file synchronization is that if you lose something, you have a backup copy that you can get to easily and without any trouble.  Just copy the file from the backup machine to your main PC.

Here are some basic tools that support automatic file synchronization:

Of these tools, only FolderShare and SugarSync are available on the Mac.

3.  Use an online backup service to back up your data to “the cloud”

In addition to synchronizing data between multiple PCs at home, you should sign up for a service that backs your data up to an online location.  (Some people refer to this as storing your data “in the cloud”, meaning–the Internet).

Online backup tools/services work in much the same way as the synchronization tools that I describe above.  Once you set up the service, it should run automatically and guarantee that any files you change are automatically copied to an online location.

There are a couple of subtle differences between doing synchronization to another PC and doing online backups:

  • Online backups will do a better job at storing old versions of files, or keeping files after you’ve deleted them locally
  • Because the online service might store several versions of a document, it may be a little harder to get access to the current version
  • Online backups can run quite a bit slower than local synchronizations–a concern unless you have a very fast Internet connection
  • With online backups, you’re relying on the online site to stay up and on the company to stay in business
  • You’ll typically pay more for online backup services than for file synchronization tools

Here are some companies that provide online backup services:

4.  Do quarterly archival backups and off-site

The next major leg of your backup strategy should be to do occasional “archive” backups to something like CD-ROMs and to store the resulting media off-site.  (Somewhere other than the building where your main PC is located).

Doing archival backups periodically, in addition to other backup methods, is critical, though it typically involves more manual effort than the other strategies.  The reason that archives are so important is that both synchronization and online backup have the goal of duplicating the directories and files on your main PC.  This means that if you delete a bunch of files on your main PC, the files will eventually also be deleted from either your backup PC (if synchronizing) or from the online service.  Once this happens, you’ll have no way to get your data back.

Online backup services are pretty good about keeping deleted files around for a short period of time.  So if you delete a file and notice quickly enough, you’ll be able to get your file back.  But if you discover that you deleted some stuff a year ago and need it back, odds are good that the online service will have already thrown the data away.

Here are some tools that make doing regular archival backups easier:

5.  Store personal passwords on multiple encrypted thumb drives

We all have lots of different username/password combinations that we’re required to create when visiting web sites, or signing up for various services.  These usernames and passwords constitutes data which is very important to keep backed up.

Unlike other types of data, it’s probably not a good idea to just back this data up with the other data, e.g. as part of an online service.  If you lose everything on your computer and need to go back to your online service to retrieve the data, you’ll need to know at least your username/password for the online service.

Because of this, I recommend keeping all of your username/password combinations on a USB flash drive that you keep with you at all times.  That way, even if you lose all data on your PC, you still have the passwords that you need to access your online data or services.

The problem with carrying all of your data on a USB drive is that it’s not secure.  If you lose the drive, someone else could read all of your data.  For that reason, it’s important to also encrypt the data on the thumb drive.  When you encrypt the data, you pick a single pass phrase that you’ll be guaranteed of remembering.  Entering that pass phrase “unlocks” the thumb drive and you can then access everything else.

To store and encrypt your password data on a thumb drive, I recommend doing the following:

  • Buy a USB flash drive.  It doesn’t have to be very large.
  • Create a text file on the flash drive and enter all of your username/password combinations
  • Use a product like TrueCrypt to encrypt all data on the drive
  • Create a second flash drive that is identical to the first, also encrypted
  • Keep one flash drive with you and store one in a safe place

6.  Keep copies of all installation media off-site

It’s also important to safeguard the programs or applications that you’ve installed on your PC.  If you suffered a complete PC meltdown, you’ll need to reinstall all of your applications before restoring your data.

The best strategy is to buy a sleeve that holds a number of different CDs and to store all of your software in the sleeve.  For software that you’ve downloaded, rather than bought, burn the downloaded images to a CD and store that CD in the folder as well.

Once you have a single folder with all of your software, store it in a safe place, at a different site from your main computer.  This way, if you suffered some disaster at home, you’d still have access to all of your original software.

7.  Create regular genealogy reports and distribute to several family members

As an added safeguard, it doesn’t hurt to create regular printed reports of all of your family data and to distribute these reports as widely as possible.  Information that is located only on a computer, no matter how well backed up, is not nearly as likely to survive as data that has been written down or printed out.

Distributing your reports and charts to as many family members as possible ensures that the data will survive even if you lose all of your electronic data.

Another important reasons to do this is because none of us can guarantee how long we’ll be around.  We may have the most organized set of electronic family history data imaginable, well backed up.  But if we die and no one continues on with our work, it will all be lost.  To guard against this, just make sure that as many people as possible have copies of the data and of all of your work.

8.  Get physical prints of all digital photos and store off-site

It’s equally important to protect digital photos by getting physical copies as soon as possible.  Again, the best strategy is to store the physical copies in a location different from the PC where the digital copies are stored.  If your house should burn down, you’ll at least be able to go back to the prints and re-digitize them.

As with reports and charts, it’s also a good idea to distribute photos as widely as possible.

9.  Monitor how your backups are doing

A backup plan is not effective if it has stopped working.  So it’s important for you to periodically check on your various backup strategies.  Go browse locations of online data, or synched data.  Try retrieving data from the archival backups that you’re creating.  It’s important to make sure that your data is truly being backed up and that you’re able to retrieve it.

10.  Write up a description of where your data is and give to family member(s)

Finally, it’s a good idea to write down a detailed description of where all of your family data is.  Include a description of your PCs, exact folders where the data is located, software programs used, and a description of where your data is backed up and how.  Make sure that several family members have a copy of this description.  You should also make it clear what is to be done with this information after you’ve gone.  Ideally, you’d bequeath it to another family member that is willing to carry on your work.  But if that’s not possible, you might consider donating the information to a local genealogical society, or historical society.  The main goal is to make sure that the information is preserved, no matter what happens to you.


That’s my complete list of what I think is necessary to safeguard your genealogical data.  Not only do these strategies ensure that you’ll never lose any data, they also help make sure that your data is properly preserved for future generations.

Doing all of this might be a little bit of work.  But you need to consider how much of a tragedy it would be to lose any of your data.  Then weigh that against the inconvenience of doing regular backups.  For most of us, family data is so incredibly important that it’s worth doing almost anything to make sure that it stays safe.


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Those of us who are passionate about family history spend a lot of our time looking backwards.  Our entire focus is on learning about our family’s history, seeing how far back we can go and how many details we can uncover.

But how often do we reverse this, and look forward instead?  When was the last time that you stopped to think about your descendants?  I’m not talking about your kids or even your grandchildren.  I’m thinking instead about the descendants that we’ll never meet, like great-grandchildren and their kids.

What would these descendants want to know about you?  What aspects of your daily life, which you might find tedious, might they find fascinating?  What significant pieces of your life are simply not captured by your “document trail”–the birth certificates, marriage records, etc. that will define you 100 years from now?

It’s much more fun to look back than to look forward.  I love staring into the eyes of ancestors in an old photo and wondering what their lives were like.  And the life of a lumberjack in Minnesota in 1894 is infinitely more interesting to me than the details of a typical white collar person’s life in 2008.

But it’s a mistake to only look backwards.  For starters, our lives are a lot more interesting than we think.  We’re so busy just living from day to day that we forget that our lives really are adventures.  That epic backpacking trip through Europe, or the story of how we quit our day job to start a new business—those are wonderful stories that need to be told!

Our lives are also filled with minutiae that our descendants will likely find fascinating.  As common and straightforward as our lives seem today, future generations will be very curious to learn about how we lived our lives—because their lives are likely to be so different.

Just imagine what you’d give for the chance to ask a dozen questions of one of your ancestors.  The simplest questions would yield great insights and bring these ancestors to life.  Questions like: Why did you marry your spouse?  What are you most proud of?  Who were your heroes?

The answer to any one of these questions would be something that we’d likely treasure, and it would bring an ancestor to life in a way that no census page ever will.

Our own answers to these questions would be no less a treasure for future generations.  Every little detail about our lives that we can leave a record of, and every artifact that we manage to preserve and pass down, will likely be equally treasured by some future family historian as they look back through time and try to make sense of our life.

So here’s a little laundry list of some of the things that you might think about leaving behind for future generations:

  • Answers to simple questions like:  What do you believe in?  What are you passionate about?
  • Diary/journal entries
  • A list of all the places that you’ve lived, with dates
  • A list of the cars that you’ve owned/driven
  • A list of all the people that have made an impact on your life    –
  • A short summary of your best friends
  • A list of all the jobs that you’ve ever held
  • A description of how you spend your leisure time
  • A list of some of your favorite things/places/people
  • A list of your biggest pet peeves
  • Personal letters
  • Birthday and holiday cards
  • Funeral and wedding programs
  • Ticket stubs
  • A treasured book
  • A favorite tool
  • Photos—lots of photos
  • Home videos
  • A recording of your voice
  • A complete list of all the traveling that you’ve done
  • A description of a typical day at your job
  • A dozen secrets that you wouldn’t share with any living relatives
  • Your biggest disappointment or heartbreak
  • Your greatest regret
  • A list of the five most significant events in your life
  • A list of your greatest talents
  • A description of your most embarassing moment
  • A description of some piece of technology and how you use it in your life
  • A description of your morning ritual(s)
  • A description of your evening ritual(s)

I could go on all day.  And likely you could, too.  The point is that there are many things that you could so easily leave behind for your descendants.  It takes such little effort to create just a few of these artifacts, and they would likely become great treasures to some future family historian.  So what are you waiting for?

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Here’s the genealogical equivalent to the age-old “boxers or briefs” question—when it comes to family history, does your passion lie with finding ancestors, or finding descendants?  Both pursuits have their own unique rewards and particular challenges.

Many people get hooked on family history as they try to flesh out a chart of their direct ancestors.  As kids, we fill in grandparents, ask about great-grandparents and quickly fill in the first few levels of the basic ancestry charts.  It’s a huge thrill to completely fill in that one-page, five-generation chart.

For people who are driven by the search for ancestors, the ultimate goal is often to identify and record as many direct ancestors as possible and to go back as far as possible.  We’ll spend months banging on a particular brick wall until we eventually uncover a new ancestor, or add specific dates and places where we previously only had a name.

Or we might be driven more by the search for descendants.  We pick one of our ancestral families, often starting with our own surname, and we do our best to fill in a complete tree of descendants, starting as far back as possible.

For descendants-focused family historians, the ultimate goal is to create a tree that contains absolutely every descendant of a particular family.  We get energized by reconnecting with long-lost cousins and by fleshing out branches of the family that we didn’t know anything about.

Me, I’m more of a descendants-guy than an ancestors-guy.  This is probably because I come from a large family (my Sexton line) that has always been close and because we are such good storytellers.  I also love the idea of putting an ancestor in some sort of historical context, by learning as much as possible about their immediate family.

Both quests—ancestors or descendants—are never-ending.  We can always keep pushing the search for ancestors, as we go back farther and farther.  And, building a list of descendants, there are always new babies being born and cousins growing up and getting married.

Whichever aspect we tend to focus on, there is a lot of benefit in switching occasionally between ancestors-focused and descendants-focused.  Learning more about an ancestor’s siblings and family can often help us push our records even further back.  And we can often learn more about a tree of descendants by finding out more about the ancestors on both sides of the family.

In reality, most of us are a mixture of both types of family historian.  Rare is the completely clean .GED file that goes in one direction only.  We often start out by exploring direct ancestors, but eventually get interested in the families that these ancestors came from.  So we start “going sideways”, learning as much as we can about the entire family.

But when it comes down to it, if I had to answer the ancestors-or-descendants question directly, I’d have to say—descendants.  How about you?

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A Family Photo Jackpot

Ted Sexton

Ted Sexton

Grandpa Ted was into scrapbooking long before it became fashionable. You’d never have guessed it from looking at him, though. To all appearances, he was just a hard-working blue-collar guy, owner of a small printing business, and father of six. But Ted had a lifelong passion for family history and spent many years obsessively collecting family photos and assembling them into scrapbooks that he kept in the basement.

As a kid, I got to visit Grandma and Grandpa Sexton’s house often, and always made a beeline for the corner of the basement that was Ted’s unique collection of knick-knacks, books, novelty liquor bottles and old photos. I spent many hours poring over the old books and scrapbooks that jammed the shelves. I didn’t know who most of the people in the scrapbook photos were—Grandpa just said that they were all uncles, aunts and cousins. But I was fascinated by the old photos from the 1930s and 1940s and the hours that I spent in Grandpa Ted’s basement kindled my passion for family history.

The Bemidji Twelve

The Bemidji Twelve

Born in 1902, Ted was the second of twelve children. The family lived in Bemidji, Minnesota, where Ted’s father worked as a foreman at a lumber mill. Ted’s mother was the family’s anchor, somehow raising a dozen kids and getting the family through the depression on the little income that they had.

Ted and his siblings were always close.  Over the years, many of them moved down to the Twin Cities, but continued to spend time together and to see each other often.  Ted was a key part of the family’s social life, often traveling to visit siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins.  He was a consummate storyteller as well, as were many of his brothers and sisters.

But Ted also had a passion for collecting family mementos—especially photographs.  He hung onto every photo that anyone ever sent him and many of them ended up in his large scrapbooks in the basement.

I heard stories, years later, of some family members even getting a little angry with Ted when they’d discover some photo of theirs in one of his scrapbooks, which he had “borrowed” years ago.  The joke was that if you ever let Ted get his hands on one of your photos, you’d likely never see it again.

Ted was also the publisher of a small newspaper and, later, the owner of a local printing company.  It was no surprise then that his passion for collecting family photos led him to publish, in 1964, a bound book of family photos.  Ted printed lots of copies and gave them to everyone in the family, so we all grew up with at least one copy of of this book of family photos at home.

The book—which we all referred to as the “green book” because of its green cover—contained about a hundred black and white photos.  They were in no particular order, but each was neatly labeled, indicating the name of everyone in the photo.  Like most of my cousins, I learned over the years to identify uncles, aunts and cousins by studying the green book and matching faces with names.  By 1964, when the book was published, there were 62 direct descendants of Ted’s parents, including 27 first cousins (my Dad’s generation) and 23 2nd cousins.

By 1997, almost exactly 100 years after Ted’s parents were married, the number of their direct descendants had grown to 109, including 70 2nd cousins (my generation).  Ted had passed away in 1980, but his passion for family history was still alive, in all of the stories that the family continued to tell about “the Bemidji Twelve”.  (Four of the original twelve siblings were still alive in 1997).

It was also in 1997 that Ted’s son Jerry, now owner of the original printing business, decided to publish an updated version of the 1964 “green book”.  The new book, entitled “The Minnesota Connection”, was reminiscent of the original, with a green cover, similar size, and a couple hundred family photos.  It ended up being over 300 pages long and included not only photos, but detailed family data, as well as lots of personal stories that people shared about relatives who had passed on.

The book was a massive undertaking.  Uncle Jerry financed the project and recruited my cousin Dan, along with his wife, to edit the book and to generate most of the content.  The most time-consuming task for them was in writing letters to ask people to share their photos, and in collecting, organizing and scanning all of the photos that they received.

Family members were extremely generous in the photos that they sent.  Many people sent large manila envelopes, filled with photos spanning many years.  So it was also a challenge to select the subset of photos to include in the book.

The Minnesota Connection

The Minnesota Connection

After many months of hard work by my cousin and his wife, The Minnesota Connection went to press.  As his father Ted had done 30 years earlier, Uncle Jerry printed lots of copies and distributed them to the entire family.  The new “green book” was beautiful, with a full color cover, professionally bound, and containing lots more photos and content than the 1964 version.

For me, the new book of family photos reignited a passion for family history that had been dormant since childhood.  In the years following its publication, I got more and more excited about transferring the contents of the book to a permanent web site.  I planned on starting with the photos from the green book and then letting people add photos of their own to the web site.

But I led a very busy life and it wasn’t until early 2007 that I finally got around to calling my cousin Dan to find out if he had a digital copy of all of the photos that they had scanned back in 1997.

To my surprise, Dan said that he wasn’t sure what happened to the digital copies, but he still had all of the original photos that went into the book.  He’d always intended to return them, but had never gotten around to it.

I was excited at the prospect of being able to rescan these photos and then share them online with the rest of the family.  I went to meet Dan at his business and he took me into a warehouse space at the back of his building, where he had several huge shelves filled with boxes and crates.  Dan said that all of the photos were up on the top shelf.

The top of the shelving was 10-12 feet off of the ground, so Dan went to grab a ladder and then climbed up and started handing boxes down to me.  At first, I figured that he wasn’t exactly sure which box the photos were in.  But suddenly it hit me—every box that he handed down was full of family photos!

I had been expecting just a few manila envelopes containing the photos that ended up in the green book.  Instead, Dan had all of the photos that people sent him in 1997.  This alone amounted to many hundreds of photos.  But it didn’t stop there.  The boxes in Dan’s back room were filled with Grandpa Ted’s entire photo and scrapbook collection!

As I continued to open box after box to see what we had, I just got more and more excited.  There were some truly wonderful treasures in Ted’s collection.  He had stacks and stacks of photos going back 60-70 years.  And we also found several scrapbooks that I had never seen, full of even older photos of extended family members.

I had hit the family history jackpot—a huge collection of original photos, most of which no one had seen in years.  I figured that there must have been something like several thousand photos in all.

It gradually dawned on me the project that lay ahead of me.  This was no longer a matter of just scanning a couple hundred photos.  Instead, I was looking at a major project that would take up the next few years.  I was starting to become giddy with the idea of scanning, identifying, and cataloguing this huge collection.

I also realized what a huge responsibility this was, and what an honor.  As it turned out, Dan trusted me enough with the photos to let me take the entire collection home.  I promised him that I’d start scanning the photos right away and we could then come up with a plan for preserving the originals.

As I write this, it’s been a year and a half since I brought Ted’s collection home and started working through it.  So far, I’ve scanned and identified close to 1,000 photos.  I’ve published everything to our family site on ancestry.com and have been able to start sharing the photos with other family members.

Although I have a lot of work ahead of me, I’m committed to the mission of preserving for future generations this amazing collection of family photos and history.  This is the kind of project that every family historian dreams of tackling.  I’m also truly thankful to Grandpa Ted for his passion for collecting and preserving these photos.  It’s because of him that we now have access to such a wonderful collection of family memories.

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