BY LANDON WOODROOF
Once the genealogy bug bites, many people find themselves spending countless hours trawling through websites like ancestry.com or going to libraries and archives and scrolling through miles of microfilm trying to recapture their family’s forgotten past.
The research phase is, of course, essential to uncovering history, but often a lot of attention is not given to what comes next.
At the Brentwood Library Thursday night, librarian and genealogy expert Holly Hebert offered suggestions and hard-won wisdom directed at getting people to think of how they want to pass down the information they glean from their genealogical research. The talk touched on everything from changing technologies to the importance of good old-fashioned storytelling.
Hebert began her presentation by reflecting on the fragility of historical memory.
“What is a surprise to me is how quickly we lose our family history and we forget and we don’t know,” she said. “You would think it would take a while to forget but it really just takes one generation to not tell the next and it’s gone.”
Hence the importance of thinking through how you want to package and dispense the family history you gather.
The digital age presents genealogists with a whole host of options for preserving information. Hebert, for instance, scanned family photographs and had them made into a custom book to give out to relatives at Christmastime. Digital photo galleries are relatively easy to make, and Hebert even suggested making family tree posters or cookbooks of family recipes if you wanted to get a little more creative.
Smartphone technology also has made it easier than ever to record oral histories.
“Today you have a phone that you can just hold up and video the person,” Hebert said.
Hebert suggested that genealogists should do just that.
“Don’t forget to interview your relatives because they are heirlooms, they are heirlooms with stories,” she said.
Likewise, today there are a plethora of online resources researchers can use to dig back through the years. These include popular sites like ancestry.com and familysearch.org, a site maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Some of these new tools, though, present potential problems as well as possibilities.
Many of Hebert’s warnings on this front pertained to two interconnected issues: the rapidly changing face of technology and the temptation to rely too heavily on just one method of digital preservation.
She brought up an example from her own life. Hebert said about 15 years ago she decided to save a lot of her own research in a format that promised maximum durability: gold CDs. What was cutting edge a decade-and-a-half ago, though, is utterly passé now.
“My new laptop doesn’t have a CD player,” she said.
Hebert also encouraged people to use multiple resources and save their research in multiple formats to avoid losing it. She advised people, for instance, to purchase a dedicated piece of family tree software rather than just creating a family tree on ancestry.com.
“All of your information needs to be saved in more than one place if at all possible,” she said.
Even if your information is safely stored in multiple formats, though, there is no guarantee future generations will actually want to look at it. That is doubly true if the information is poorly organized.
Hebert’s number one recommendation to mitigate against this potentiality is a simple one: make your research interesting by turning into stories.
“For me this all boils down to the story,” she said. “We all want to tell a story about our ancestors.”
That means not getting bogged down in minutiae like dates and places and names necessarily. Rather find the through lines in your research and turn those dates and places and names into a story that will capture the imaginations of your descendants and relatives.
“There’s a story in everything if you dig hard enough and find the background information,” she said.
Hebert teaches multiple classes about genealogy at the Brentwood Library. Her next class will be in a couple of months and will be focused on teaching beginners the fundamentals of genealogical research.