In celebration of National Preparedness Month in the United States, I’m running a four-part post on securing your family history archive and research against disasters. Last week I talked about assessing and prioritizing your original family artifacts, photographs and documents. This week’s tip:
DUPLICATE THE PAST. There’s no true substitute for an original family Bible, but if it’s lost, you at least want to have a copy. Scan your original photos, documents, and other flat artifacts—including the important pages of that Bible. While you could carefully use a flatbed scanner, consider a portable scanner or a mobile scanning app like Genius Scan or Scanner Pro.
Next, photograph dimensional family artifacts like artwork, handicrafts, clothing, military and school memorabilia, etc. Use a regular digital camera or the camera on your phone or tablet/iPad. Make sure you label the photos by using the metadata fields in digital files or by printing them out and captioning them in an album. Consider using the Heirloom Inventory Kit developed by the folks at Family Tree Magazine to create an archival record of your artifacts with images, stories and more.
Next week, we’ll tackle a third topic: preserving original documents, photos and heirlooms.
This morning I looked out my window and could see a huge plume of smoke. Across the valley a wild fire is raging that began yesterday afternoon. The hot and very dry conditions have fueled the flames, and homes are starting to be evacuated. It’s a grim reminder that disasters do happen and no one is immune.
It is National Preparedness Month in the United States, and for genealogists, that means disaster planning for our home archives and family history files. We don’t like to think about the unthinkable: losing our original photos, documents and years’ worth of research in a fire, flood, hurricane or other disaster. But it’s happened in places as high-and-mighty as federal archives here in the USA: it can certainly happen in our homes. Even a leaky roof, downed tree, bug infestation, basement mildew issue, theft or other “minor” disaster can mean total annihilation of our family archives if it’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As I watch the fire and monitor it’s progress on Twitter, I’m thankful that I can rest easy that my precious family history is protected in a number of ways. This month, I’ll share four steps to help you secure the future of your family past, one step for each of the next four weeks. This gives you time to follow through on each piece of advice before you get to the next step. This week’s step:
ASSESS YOUR GENEALOGY ASSETS. What needs protection?
Your top priority, as a genealogist, will likely be original photos, documents, artwork and one-of-a-kind family artifacts like a family Bible. In other words, things that can’t be replaced.
Next, think about things you’d rather not have to replace: records you’ve ordered from repositories; several years’ worth of genealogy notes and files; computerized family trees. Make yourself a list, so in the weeks to follow you can carry out an emergency plan for each item (starting with high-priority items) as your time and budget permit. Next week’s topic: DUPLICATE THE PAST.
It’s time for the third part of our disaster planning process in honor of National Preparedness Month in the United States. Two weeks ago, I talked about assessing your home archive and research files and prioritizing the items you want to protect. Last week, we talked about making copies of important originals and other valuable items. This week:
PROTECT PRECIOUS ORIGINALS. After you’ve duplicated your originals, take steps to preserve them. How exactly you do this depends on what you’re protecting; how much time and money you’re willing to spend; and how you plan to store or display them. The core strategy is to store them in appropriate archival materials away from direct light and extremes in temperature and humidity. No damp basements or hot attics! But what materials constitute safe storage are different for paper items, different types of photos or cloth, and electronic items, so you need to do a little research. (Hey, we genealogists are good at that!)
Several resources can help you learn more about giving your family artifacts the protection they need, including:
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We have five strategies for researching disasters for family history. They come in response to a listener email about her own “disaster-prone family.” Use these tips to learn about natural or man-made disasters, epidemics, travel accidents, and more that affected your ancestors, and very possibly more about your ancestors role in these events.
View of Eastland taken from Fire Tug in river, showing the hull resting on it’s side on the river bottom. Wikimedia Commons image; click to view with full citation.
It might seem a little sad to search out disasters, epidemics, and accidents in the lives of your ancestors, but it certainly helps us see things in a different light. Genealogy Gems Editor Sunny Morton has shared recently how enthralling it has been for her to dig deeper into her ancestor’s experience of living through the Johnstown Flood. She used many of the tools I write about extensively in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox (Google Books, Google Earth Pro, and even YouTube) to add an amazing amount of meat to the bones of the story.
I also recently received an inspiring letter from Natalie, a Genealogy Gems Premium Member about how researching disasters in her family history turned her into a passionate genealogist. Here’s what she said:
“Dear Lisa and Company,
I just subscribed to your Premium podcast and must say that listening to Premium Podcast episode 143 affirmed that I made an excellent decision!
I also had family members who were in the Johnstown Flood, since that’s where my family initially immigrated. My parents and I were born there and [I] have heard of stories of the Great Flood of 1889 since I can remember. There was a long-standing family story about my 2nd great-aunt, Julia Pfeiffer Rohr, being pulled out of the floodwaters by her hair.
Ironically or not, my ancestors relocated to Chicago a few years after the Johnstown Flood, only to have my maternal grandmother’s sister (who was a few months away from her 19th birthday) killed while aboard the Eastland [steamship in 1915]. Not sure why some families are ‘disaster prone’ through the generations, but ours seems to be one of those.
I learned about the Eastland Disaster as an adult when my mother’s half-sister in Chicago wrote and shared a family history with me. As a Twin Cities journalist, I published an article (click here and go to page 5) in one of the community newspapers about the disaster.
Still, at the time, I found next to nothing on the Eastland, which was both frustrating and puzzling. [Since then,] I’ve done a ton of research on the event and have written larger pieces, including a to-be published book. I didn’t intend to become an expert on a shipping disaster, but that’s what happened. Also, this marked my entrance into the amazing world of family history.”
5 Tips for Researching Disasters in Family History
Learn more about the disasters your own family experienced with these 5 tips that I shared with Natalie in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 145. Although these tips are for researching the Eastland disaster specifically, you can absolutely put them to work for you!
1. Start with Google.The world’s leading search engine, Google.com can lead to rich resources you may never find in a local library or archive. In the case of the Eastland disaster, a Google search immediately brought up a website dedicated to the event. The casualty list had everyone’s name, age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, and the cemetery in which they were buried.
2.Next, we go to Google Books, where Google takes you deeper and more specifically into historical books. Using the Eastland disaster as our criteria, the first result was a published final report by the American Red Cross’ disaster relief committee on what happened, and how the affected families were helped. Several published histories of the disaster were also listed there. These can be purchased, or you can find copies of them through inter-library loan at your local library. If you just want to see which books in the search results can be read for free, click the Tools button under the search box, and a new menu bar will pop up. Click Any books, then choose Free Google eBooks, like so:
Watch my free video tutorial on finding free e-books on Google. This video is one in a series of tech tip videos available for free at my YouTube channel. Click the Subscribe button while you’re there and you will be notified each time a new genealogy video is published.
3. Keep checking back! New things come online every moment of every day. In 2015, historical video footage about the Eastland disaster was discovered and identified in an online archive (see my blog post about that). But of course it’s impossible to rerun the same searches every day looking for new and updated material. The answer: set up a Google Alert for your search query. That way Google will do the searching for you, and you will receive an email only when Google finds new and updated items that match your search terms. Read my article on How to Set-up Google Alerts for step by step instructions on how to set up your own Google Alerts. Then read How to get the Most out of your Google Alerts for Genealogy.
5. Explore Gendisasters.com.This site compiles information on all kinds of tragedies from the past: tornadoes, fires, floods, and buggy-related disasters are just a small sampling of what they cover. You can search by type of disaster, but if you’re not quite sure how it might be filed (like was it a drowning or a ship disaster?), then search by year or place. I looked for Eastland disaster first under ship disasters, and I saw that events are listed alphabetically by place, specifically by city in most cases. There isn’t a way to jump easily to “Chicago,” so I had to scroll through several pages, but I did find it under Chicago, IL Steamer Eastland Disaster, July 1915. Since I already knew the city and date, I could have gotten to it faster by searching under those tabs, but I sure saw just how many events are cataloged at Gendisasters.com. It’s amazing!
Avoid Disaster with the Right Tools
Lastly, some of the disasters you are researching may have a website dedicated to it. The Eastland disaster webpage has several interesting pictures of the ship and the disaster itself. There’s a nice long narrative about the tragedy and some transcribed newspaper articles, as well.
Researching disasters for family history can be exciting and enjoyable. The world wide web is truly like a time machine. See what other ways you can use Google for genealogy in my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.Effective Google searches, Google Earth, Google Alerts, and Google Translate are just the tip of the iceberg! You will become a Google guru in no time.
Damage reports are surfacing in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Today we discuss how two Texas library collections have fared, and disaster recovery strategies for genealogy researchers. I’ve got a fantastic get-started video tip for those trying to rescue documents, photos, and other family heirlooms–and the two steps everyone should take to protect their priceless genealogical collections.
Port Aransas, Texas
My heart goes out to those who have been in the paths of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma recently. Knowing I live in Texas, many of you have asked how my family is doing. I’m happy to report that the storms didn’t reach those of us here north of Dallas. However, our daughter Hannah and her husband, while thankfully safe after evacuating from their home on the Texas shore, suffered the loss of their car and other possessions, and Hannah’s workplace was destroyed. They are now part of the relief and recovery efforts, and look forward to when they will be able to return to their home, which is currently uninhabitable. We feel very blessed that they are safe and sound, and our prayers go out to all who suffered losses.
Disaster Recovery for Genealogy Libraries
Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons image; click to view.
As lives are secured and order begins to be restored in devastated areas, I’ve wondered how various genealogy libraries and archives have fared. Genealogy Gems listener Chris emailed me with an alert that the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research in Houston, Texas has suffered some damage. “So sad for genies!” she writes. Indeed! The Clayton is one of the top public library genealogy research centers in the United States.
Not wanting to disturb their recovery efforts with a phone inquiry, I’ve turned to Google searching and social media for a status report. The Houston Public Library Foundation states that the Clayton is among one of 10 library locations that are “unable to open due to various building damages.” The Clayton Library Friends Facebook page offers more specifics–and this hopeful report:
“Yes, there was some flooding at Clayton Library and according to Susan Kaufman, Manager, Clayton Library is closed this week. Clayton Library staff will be deployed to other libraries that are open.
Clayton Library did suffer some water damage but it was not really that bad. They just need to decide how best to proceed since they were planning on doing renovations soon anyway.”
CityofHouston.news tells us what Clayton staff may be doing at other library branches: “The services and resources that are available at your library system include free access to WiFi and computers, one-on-one assistance with filling out applications and forms, and access to the expertise of library archivists who can assist you in preserving and saving precious family memorabilia such as books, letters and photographs that may have been damaged in the storm.”
Chris’ email encourages us to support the recovery effort for Houston’s libraries through the Houston Public Library Foundation: here’s the link she sent to their donation portal.
Port Arthur Public Library, Port Arthur, Texas. Image from library website.
Down on the coast, another library system wasn’t so fortunate. The Port Arthur Library will remain closed for months, reports the Port Arthur News. “The Port Arthur Public Library was one of many buildings hit hard by Harvey,” states an article by L.V. Salinas. “It sustained flood damage and the subsequent mold issue inundated buildings often face afterward. It also sustained substantial damage and loss of property of its books, computer equipment, archives and more.”
Crews are working to clean up and preserve what they can. High priority is being given to their historical and genealogical resources: “One of the costlier processes was the freeze-drying of irreplaceable items like genealogy records, microfilm, Port Arthur historical photos and collections. The intent, as performed by companies contracted by the city, was to prevent any further damage from taking place, kill the bacteria that’s present and preserve the items long enough for a transference of information by experts.”
The Port Arthur History Collection is proudly described on the library website; it includes a collection of historic photos that were lovingly organized by volunteers and placed in archival-quality storage. “It’s one of our highest buy testosterone medication priorities,” states a library official in the article. “It’s time sensitive, and it has to happen now….We have to preserve it now.”
Disaster Recovery for Genealogy Researchers
As genealogists, we to have our personal and precious libraries and archives. We build trees in software–some of us spending hundreds or thousands of hours on them. We may have files, books, and other research materials. Many of us are family archivists: the stewards of priceless original family documents, photos, and other artifacts. Here’s some level-headed counsel for after a disaster strikes–and here’s what the rest of us should be doing now, before another disaster.
After a Disaster: Take It One Step at a Time
If you’ve been affected by a recent disaster, I’d like to share this fantastic, level-headed advice from Rennee Tallent, Galveston Historical Foundation’s Manager of Historic Collections (Galveston, Texas was hit by a hurricane in 1900–the “deadliest natural disaster in American history”):
I love her compassionate advice:
“Walking into [your home after a disaster] is very overwhelming. Try to take a deep breath and think about the things that matter most to you and what your priorities are. Take it one piece at a time: after you’ve finished that one, move on to the next.” -Rennee Tallent, Galveston Historical Foundation’s Manager of Historic Collections
Start your recovery efforts with whatever matters most to you, Renee says. But she reminds us that certain items are more vulnerable to destruction than others, so try to also focus on things made out of paper and photographs, then cloth, then wood. Leave your china, silver, and glassware until these other items have been stabilized.
Before Disaster Strikes: Digitize and Back It Up!
If a disaster strikes, most of us won’t have the time to grab all our genealogy research files, photographs, and other precious heirlooms. But many of these items are one-of-a-kind–unless we make them two-or-more-of-a-kind!
As family archivists, we can best preserve our past by:
Digitizing it. Make high-quality digital scans of original documents and photos. Take digital pictures of three-dimensional heirlooms such as clothing, handicrafts, even quilts.
Backing up your digital files. Should a disaster occur–whether storm, theft, or fire–your computer may suffer the same fate as any original documents and heirlooms in your home. So I recommend investing in an automated, cloud-based backup service for your computer.
For a few dollars a month, a cloud-based backup service will continually back up your computer files to a remote server. In the event of any loss (including a computer crash), you can download them again. Having a digitized version of those original Civil War letters or photos isn’t quite the same as the real thing–but it’s so much better than having them disappear entirely. And if you’re like me, your computer doesn’t just house your photos and research files. It may have hundreds or even thousands of work files, personal files, music, or video files and more.
I use Backblaze for my personal computer and to back up thousands of Genealogy Gems audio, video, and other files. Backblaze is made for everyday consumers: it’s affordable and easy to use. Do your research yourself and choose the best cloud-based backup for you (click here to read the 8 features you should be watching for).
Our Service “Happiness” Manager, Lacey, experienced first hand the benefits of having her computer backed up:
Right after our Genealogy Gems seminar in Dallas in early August, I came home, sat down to work, and discovered my laptop had died. I tried everything I could find to get it going again (thanks to Google search results) but it couldn’t be revived. Thankfully, I had both Backblaze and Dropbox installed on my computer, and I didn’t lose any files at all. I was able to get everything back! Even my Google account saved all of my settings and bookmarks for my Chrome browser, so when I got my new computer, just about everything was restored as though nothing had happened. I was SO RELIEVED! Planning ahead really paid off!
(If you decide to go with my favorite, Backblaze, thanks for clicking here to purchase it. The modest commission we receive supports the free information I provide on this website and the Genealogy Gems podcast.)
My sincere wishes for the safety of your families–and your family history.