Monday, November 6, 2017

The Case Against Paperless Genealogy

Sorry, paperless genealogy is NOT for me. Some avid genealogists advocate digitizing everything, not downloading any paper copies, and/or not printing images/documents found during research. Not me. I print everything. I file everything. Under more than one surname, if applicable.

Why print in the digital age?

Walter Isaacson--the author of the best-selling bio of Steve Jobs and, now, the best-selling book about Leonardo da Vinci--sums up my main reason in one sentence. Let me quote him (you can read the entire interview here):
Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after 500 years, which our own tweets likely (and fortunately) won't be.
Isaacson was privileged to read more than 7,000 pages of da Vinci's own notebooks. And he found more than just words: the man's personality shines through in the scribbles and sketches that adorn the pages. So not only can paper survive, it also can reveal clues to ancestors' inner thoughts and feelings.

A senior Google exec also warns that consumers should print out key items, including selfies, for instance, because technology will certainly change over time. "Historians will tell you that sometimes documents, transactions, images and so on may turn out to have an importance which is not understood for hundreds of years. So failure to preserve [by printing] them will cause us to lose our perspective," he has said.

Technology comes and goes, as anyone who's ever had to unlearn WordPerfect and learn MS Word can attest. Anyone who began storing data on those big floppy discs and migrated to mini-discs and migrated to CDs and migrated to flash drives. And to the cloud, then to whatever overtakes the cloud.

Meanwhile, paper lives on and on. My goal is to ensure that the next generation inherits family history. Will they learn my technology? No. Will they open my files and archival boxes and leaf through photos and certificates and memorabilia? Yes!

At top, the back of a 1930s business card from hubby's grandpa, Brice Larimer McClure. Sometime before his death in 1970, he took cards and scraps of paper and recorded facts about his ancestors and the ancestors of his wife, Floyda Mabel Steiner McClure.

This card shows the birth years of Floyda and her siblings, including the infant who died young (I eventually found proof to confirm Brice's recollection).

Being able to pick out this card from Brice's effects gave us a headstart on piecing together the entire generation of Steiners. And some grandkids think it's a bit amazing to hold in their hands a business card that's now more than 80 years old, while they hear stories of how the family made ends meet during the Depression. I scanned and shared this business card on my Ancestry tree, where dozens of people have saved it to their own trees--making the info widely available and keeping it safe for the future!

All in all, I plan to keep up the paper chase and leave a paper trail for future generations. AND I'm also digitizing everything, by the way, and doing daily/hourly backups to keep the data safe, filed by family and surname on my hard drives, flash drives, and cloud backups. But paper is my secret strategy for passing what I've learned to the younger generation. It worked for older generations--and it will work for mine.


For ideas about storing documents and paper in archival boxes, please check out my concise genealogy book, Planning a Future for Your Family's Past, available from Amazon (paperback and Kindle versions). Paperback is available at the book store.


  1. I'm with you! Technology changes so quickly that our digitized research could end up stuck on an antiquated computer that no one can access. Years ago my computer died. I wanted to transfer my Genealogy program to my new computer, but the program was so old that the only way to download my tree was on a floppy disc! Floppy disc? The new computer had no slot for that. My only solution was to create reports for each family and then enter it all over again into a new program. So yes, a paper trail is the way to go.

  2. Wendy, I had a similar experience. Not all of my digital files were accessible by my new computer! Paper is so much simpler, and will last a long time if stored properly. Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  3. I trust paper more than digital for the same reason. Obviously I also save digitally but I can’t place my entire trust in it.

  4. I like to print everything out, too. For me, it is often about being able to "touch" something and lay out documents and compare them. But, you're reminder about what will last and what people will sort through after we're gone is wonderful!

  5. I'm with you, Marian. Paper is my priority even though I usually digitize images. One thing I will say in favor of digital images is that they can be enlarged for easier reading but I could never go with only digital as some of the younger generation have.

  6. Oh, I forgot to say: Happy Anniversary for 10 years of blogging. Great job, and here's to many more years.

  7. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You! As an archivist and genealogist I truly enjoyed this blog post and totally agree! Bravo!

  8. I totally agree! Shortly after trying to go paperless back in 2004 when I got my first laptop I accidently dropped it and destroyed the hard drive. I had found a lot vital records and I didn't print them out as usual. I was devastated. Now I store everything on my computer and an external hard drive, and I print it all out! Great blog.

  9. I also heartily agree! I admit to loving my digital resources- they are much easier to work with. But, nothing compares to handling a document also handled by your great-grandfather!

  10. AnonymousJuly 21, 2023

    Digital imperils our history.