RootsWeb Is Down: Data Recovery Strategies for the Genealogist

RootsWeb is down! This important free genealogy platform hosts millions of names on hundreds of genealogy-related websites for locales, societies, and even individual family trees. Here’s what you should know about the situation–and how you may be able to access older versions of RootsWeb or other sites that are not currently available.

RootsWeb had a security issue

On December 23, 2017, Ancestry.com reported receiving a tip that thousands of RootsWeb usernames and passwords were publicly exposed. Affected accounts were users of the RootsWeb surname list, which Ancestry discontinued earlier in the year.

For those of you not familiar with RootsWeb, it’s a long-time free web platform where individuals and organizations can host their own genealogy-related websites. I often find sites there with information about counties I’m researching in and sites run by local genealogy societies. More than 11 million names are indexed or transcribed on RootsWeb sites–that’s in addition to the wealth of information you’ll find on local history, sources, and societies. Ancestry.com has been hosting RootsWeb since 2000.

Even if this particular security concern doesn’t affect you directly, I encourage you to keep reading. This scenario provides a perfect example of the kinds of data security, privacy, and loss issues we need to be aware of as genealogists. Even if you don’t have a site yourself on RootsWeb, it’s a common resource you will likely come across as you research your family tree. So here are a few take-home points for everyone, including advice on how to look at archived versions of any website that is temporarily down or no longer in service.

The extent of the problem

Ancestry did some quick reconnaissance and reported the following:

  • No sensitive personal information such as credit card or Social Security numbers were exposed since RootsWeb doesn’t collect it.
  • That said, about 55,000 customers have the same account info for both RootsWeb and an Ancestry.com site, which means that these Ancestry.com customers’ login data was potentially compromised. Most affected accounts are free trial accounts or they’re not currently in use. But Ancestry says, “We are currently contacting these customers. Any user whose account had its associated email/username and password included on the file has had their accounts locked and will need to create a new password the next time they visit…We have no reason to believe that any Ancestry systems were compromised. Further, we have not seen any activity indicating the compromise of any individual Ancestry accounts.”
  • Ancestry found other RootsWeb login information that could have been potentially exposed, and they’re letting these account-holders know.
  • They have temporarily taken RootsWeb offline to do a “deep analysis” of the site’s design. Ancestry says they “are working to ensure that all data is saved and preserved to the best of our ability. As RootsWeb is a free and open community that has been largely built by its users, we may not be able to salvage everything as we work to resolve this issue and enhance the RootsWeb infrastructure.”
  • In the Comments section of the Ancestry.com announcement, Anne Gillespie Mitchell stated, “We do not have a specific timeline at this point. We hope it will take no more than a few weeks to resolve these issues. RootsWeb mailing lists will, however, remain active.”

Bottom line: Anyone whose account was potentially affected is receiving an email notice to change their password. For everyone else, Ancestry.com says, “There is nothing you need to do as a result of this incident. However, we always recommend that you take the time to evaluate your own security settings. Please, never use the same username and password for multiple services or sites. And it’s generally good practice to use longer passwords and to change them regularly.”

RootsWeb is down: Why it matters and what to do

Contributing Editor Sunny Morton shared an email that was forwarded to her by her mother, a genealogy librarian at a public library in Northeast Ohio. I’m sharing it here with the permission of the author Cynthia, who helps manage several RootsWeb sites. Cynthia says:

“I put a couple of items on my websites the morning of the twenty-third. By that afternoon, RootsWeb was shut down. Almost the entire RootsWeb is down, probably for several weeks while they fix a security breach. This involves the Cleveland District Roundtable site, Cuyahoga GenWeb, Lake County GenWeb, and Lake County and East Cuyahoga County Genealogical Society sites. This feels even scarier than the last major outage. Fortunately, I have copies on my computer of my entire sites, so no panic for lost data. But [the data] is now not very accessible for most folks.”

Cynthia followed her message with this tip: “A workaround would be the WayBack Machine on Archive.org. You put in the URL and it shows you the dates they downloaded. You may need to look at several of them to find a more complete copy. Some are just a few front pages.”

I talked more extensively about the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (along with Google’s own backup copies, called caches) in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 145. Here’s how to use the Wayback Machine to find one of the downed websites Cynthia mentioned: the Cleveland District Roundtable, which is a fantastic collaborative directory and group calendar for all genealogical organizations in greater Cleveland, Ohio. If you run a Google search for that site now, you will find the site. But if you click on it, you’ll see a message that RootsWeb is currently unavailable:

When this happens, you can copy the URL from the top of the browser page and paste it into the Wayback Machine search box. You’ll then see a timeline showing that the Roundtable site has been captured (or archived) by the Wayback Machine 73 times since 2008, most recently (as shown by the arrow) on April 17, 2017:

Scroll down on the page a little to see a calendar, shown here, and you can click on highlighted dates on which updated captures were taken. Click on the most recent highlighted date.

Tips for everyone on avoiding genealogy data loss

A huge hat-tip to Cynthia for the work she does in her local genealogy community–and for sending out advice to those she knew would be affected by the temporary loss of RootsWeb. In addition to her tip on using the Wayback Machine, she says something else absolutely critical:

“Fortunately, I have copies on my computer of my entire sites, so no panic for lost data.”

The true and deep loss is when there is no backup copy of painstakingly-collected genealogy data, whether it’s a family tree, research files, or over 11 million names in RootsWeb’s online indexes and transcriptions. I’m not implying that RootsWeb is permanently lost: Ancestry.com does mention its plan to “resolve this issue and enhance the RootsWeb infrastructure.” But if they don’t bring all of RootsWeb back (they admit it’s possible there will be some loss), or if your genealogy data is lost from any website or computer, you always want to have a backup plan in place.

In this companion post, you’ll find a strategy for backing up your tree at Ancestry.com. It’s actually a template for something near and dear to my heart: a master plan for your genealogy data security. Things to think about in your master plan are:

  • Saving digital copies of every document and artifact on your computer in organized, consistently labeled files. Listen to the free Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast episodes 32-33 for a tutorial on naming and organizing these files.
  • Keeping your master family tree in software on your own computer rather than online. Click here to read why. I recommend RootsMagic software.
  • Backing up everything on your computer with a reliable cloud-based backup service. Click here to read about the features you should look for in cloud-based backup; I myself use and recommend Backblaze.

Organize and secure your genealogy data once and for all

Genealogy Gems Premium Members can take genealogical organization and security to the next level with my how-to videos. I recommend these:

Be sure to download the video class handouts on the video page. I can’t think of a better way to start the year off right than to take action to secure your hard-won data!

Disaster Recovery for Genealogy: “Think About the Things That Matter Most”

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.

disaster recover things that matter most

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

Backblaze lisa louise cooke(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.

How to Download Backblaze in 4 Easy Steps

Download BackblazeDon’t be intimidated by signing up for Backblaze, the cloud-based computer backup service I recommend.
Here’s how to download Backblaze in four easy steps. Protecting genealogy data, family photos, and other files is essential!

I was pretty startled when I discovered that the cloud backup service I used to use wasn’t backing up my video files! That was a deal-breaker for me. So, after reviewing other cloud backup service options, I chose Backblaze. I’m really glad I did. Backblaze runs 24/7 through my internet connection and is constantly saving changes I make to every file. That means if my computer is lost, stolen, destroyed, or hit with deadly viruses, I’ll always have copies of my files and that even includes my large video files!

Genealogy Gems Premium website member Kathy felt a little intimidated about downloading BackBlaze for the first time:

“I received your e-mail yesterday with all the helpful information. I remember you mentioning Backblaze in previous e-mails, and I looked up their website and read the information I could find. However, it did not show the download steps, so I could not tell how difficult it would be and if it would ask me really hard questions that I would not know how to answer during backup, so I didn’t subscribe.

I have had a few external hard drives with backup programs before and they were very difficult and I didn’t want to go through that again. But, I decided that today would be the day, that I would back up my computer…I subscribed to Backblaze. I trust your judgement, so thank you for your advice.”

Have you wondered, like Kathy did, if it would be complicated to set up Backblaze? Has it held you back from taking the leap to protect your files? I want you and our other readers and listeners to feel 100% confident in downloading this awesome back-up service. Here’s how to download Backblaze to your device in four easy steps.

  1. Click here to go to Backblaze and begin your free 15-day trial by clicking on “Try Free Trial.”Download Backblaze
  2. You will be asked to create an account using your email address and choosing a password. Once you have clicked “Start Backing Up,” a pop up window will appear and you can download Backblaze to your device.How to download Backblaze
  3. Next, another pop-up window will ask your permission to install Backblaze to your device. Click “Ok.”
  4. Wait patiently. Yet another pop-up window will appear and ask you to “Install.” Click “Install Now.” It may take several minutes depending on the speed of your internet connection.Download backblaze

You have now installed Backblaze and the back-up process has begun. You can continue to use your device normally as all your data is backing up.

How to Schedule Your Back-up Time

It is quick and easy to set up a time for Backblaze to back-up your data. By clicking on “Settings,” and then “Schedule,” you have the pull-down menu options of a continuous backup (this is the option Backblaze recommends, and the one I chose,) a daily backup, or “when I click <back up now>.” Choose whatever option is best for you and then click “Apply” and “Ok” at the bottom of the window. You are all set!download backblaze

A Crucial Aspect of Your Genealogy Research

So, why did Kathy want cloud backup service? She says:

In 2013, we had a house fire and we lost everything but the clothes on our backs. I lost 30 years of genealogy, all my records and my genealogy library, plus all the ancestral photos that can never be replaced. I did have a back-up system, but it burnt right along with my computer. At first, I thought I would never do genealogy again. I would never be able to replace all that I had lost. It was costly enough to order all the birth, death, and marriage records the first time. There was no way I could do it again. I bought another computer and a copy of Family Tree Maker 2012 and decided that I would just work on some of the families that I was most interested in. I have very limited resources now, but I am enjoying trying to rebuild little bits of my tree. Thank you for all you do for the genealogy community. It is greatly appreciated.

My heart aches for Kathy’s loss. I hear stories like her’s far too often. I truly believe that backing up our precious genealogy data is a crucial (and underutilized) aspect of family history research. I hope her story will help to encourage others to start backing up today. I am so happy that many Gems, like Kathy, are now using Backblaze.

After doing my homework, I was proud to bring Backblaze on as the official backup of The Genealogy Gems Podcast. Please get the word out there to your favorite genies that Backblaze is an effective and cost-efficient way to save us from loss of our most important data. They’ll be thanking you!

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8 Features Your Cloud Backup Service Should Have

Download the handout: Your Guide to Cloud Backup

Cloud backup service for your computer is a must-have, but not every service is the same. Learn 8 essential features yours should have–and the company I love that offers every one of them for just $5 a month.

These days, we create SO many files we couldn’t bear to lose. Genealogy data files. Photos. Videos. Emails (and all those attachments). Unfortunately, computer crashes, thefts and other physical damage are not rare occurrences. And even though external hard drive backups are better than nothing, they are vulnerable to the same loss.

The video below offers a quick introduction to cloud-based computer backup service for your computer. I’ll tell you:

  • WHY I use cloud-based backup for all my own business and personal files,
  • WHAT kind of features I recommend in a backup service and
  • WHO I use to back up my own computers.

And check out the offer in the video for a great cloud backup service PLUS a free video class!

Here’s a quick recap of the questions to ask when considering a cloud backup system:

1. Does it automatically back up ALL your data (including videos)?
2. Does it back up any external drives attached to my computer by USB?
3. Does it have an unlimited file size limit?
4. Has it got an unthrottled or optimized backup speed?
5. Are there flexible backup options?
6. Does it restore files, folders and all data?
7. Does it offer a feature to locate my computer if it’s lost or stolen?
8. Does it allow me to add additional layers of security, such as a pass-phrase?

backblaze online cloud backup for genealogyI use and recommend Backblaze because I can answer YES to all of the above. In addition to all these features, Backblaze has a rock-solid reputation in the industry for being secure and reliable. And it’s SO affordable–only $5 per month–less than the cost of a single fast-food lunch for unbeatable security and peace of mind for ALL your data.

I encourage everyone to do the research themselves and choose the right cloud backup service for themselves. But I hope you’ll click here to check out Backblaze as a serious option.

“I Was Robbed!” They Took the Computer AND the Backup Drive (Why You Need Cloud Backup)

cloud storage computer backup plan backblazeA Genealogy Gems listener was robbed of both her computer AND external hard drive. “Thank goodness we had a web-based backup, so we did not lose our precious research or photographs.” Here’s what web-based backup is–and how you can save a whopping 50% on Backblaze backup service THIS coming Monday only).

Recently Kathy from Carmel Valley, California wrote in with a sobering message.

“Lisa, I thought you  might share a reminder with your listeners. My husband and I were out of town last week and were robbed. The robbers took only electronics (thank goodness) and did not mess up the house….another thing to be thankful for. But your listeners can not rely on external hard drives as backup. If the external hard drive is by the computer….the robbers will take that as well.

“Thank goodness we had a web-based backup. So we did not lose our precious research or photographs. It could have been so much worse. This is just another reason why your listeners should look at BackBlaze or another company that provides the same service.  I am grateful that I did.  Yes, we have to purchase new computer equipment….BUT we have our research and our photos.  Gratitude, gratitude.”

backblaze online cloud backup for genealogyWeb-based computer backup–also referred to as cloud backup–can certainly minimize our losses if we experience a disaster or robbery. My cloud backup service is Backblaze. Backblaze works behind-the-scenes 24/7 to save a copy of every file on my computer to its secure cloud storage. If I ever need it, I can log in to Backblaze and there it will be, waiting for me.

THIS coming Cyber Monday–November 30, 2015–you can purchase Backblaze cloud backup service for 50% off ONLY through Genealogy Gems. Sign up for my email newsletter now and I’ll send you a coupon code and special instructions for redeeming it on Sunday evening. This fantastic Cyber Monday offer is only valid on Monday, November 30, 2015 and only with the coupon code and instructions you’ll get via my email!

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