Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Save Family History for More Than One Generation

During my "Planning a Future for Your Family's Past" webinar for the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston on Sunday, I spoke about how to plan ahead to save your family-history collection for future generations. An attendee asked a very important question:

Does the strategy change if thinking into future generations, more than one generation ahead?

Oral history lost after three generations

As background, let me point to an old news item quoting archivist Aaron Holt of Fort Worth. He said “it only takes three generations to lose a piece of oral family history. … It must be purposely and accurately repeated over and over again through the generations to be preserved for a genealogist today." 

Today, I'm thinking not only about oral history--the stories we hear and tell about our ancestors--but also about photos, documents, and other physical items that connect us to generations in the past. What can we do to keep our family history alive in the family for more than one generation into the future?

Top priority: Share information widely

In my experience, the best thing we can do to keep family history safe for the future is to share the information widely among family members now. We must be sure that the next generation will be aware of our genealogy and key pieces of information about our family's past. 

The more relatives who know stories, names, faces, and facts today, the more likely that family history will survive into the generations beyond our own. 

Case in point: My maternal grandmother's Farkas Family Tree. She and her siblings formed the tree association in March, 1933. They kept typed and handwritten notes from monthly meetings stretching from 1933 into 1964. I remember attending meetings when I was a little girl. From my perspective, it was a time to see cousins and eat. I had no idea what the adults did during the meeting.

In fact, I had no idea written notes were taken at each meeting until one of my mother's first cousins mentioned it casually about seven years ago. He had two volumes of meeting minutes that had been bound for safekeeping. Did I want to see? Absolutely! What a gold mine of genealogy these minutes turned out to be. If not for this chance comment, the existence of the books of minutes might have not be known or remembered by the next generation.

My cousin allowed me to keep the books long enough to scan the 600+ pages, filled with details of family life and social gatherings for 31 years. I had the scans printed and bound for some cousins and, later, shared the scans electronically with a larger circle of cousins. Some of the cousins were too young to go to a meeting and were quite interested to read the month-by-month doings of our family. The "Farkas Family Tree" will live on in these meeting minutes, now in the hands or computers of more than a dozen cousins across the country. They can discuss with their families and share with descendants.

Provide context for future generations 

Without sufficient context, how will relatives two or three generations from now understand who's who and where ancestors actually fit into the family tree? 

I was lucky enough to be able to discuss the Farkas Family Tree minutes with four older cousins who attended meetings back in the day, and get their perspective on what I read in the minutes. I also conducted genealogical research to fill in gaps where needed. In essence, I was a connecting link from the past to the present, and learned enough context to share with future generations.

As a result, the package I sent to cousins was more than just the minutes. I included a 60-year-old family photo with identifications, an alphabetical list of names from the minutes, and an explanation of who each person was: Hermina Farkas Schwartz was the oldest daughter of Moritz Farkas and Leni Kunstler Farkas, the wife of Theodore Schwartz, and the maternal grandmother of Marian Burk Wood. 

So my advice for keeping family history alive two or more generations in the future is: share info/documents/photos/stories now as widely as possible, and provide context so later generations can understand the names, relationships, and lives of ancestors from the distant past. 

For more ideas, please see Amy Johnson Crow's post about LOCKSS--Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. And, of course, keep in mind the privacy of people still living.


  1. What amazing wonderful forethought your matGM and her siblings had to start, continue having, and record these meetings from the ‘30s through the ‘60s! (I am envious of your archive.) But I am saddened the later generation (your parent’s gen?) did not carry on the meetings? Was there a reason the cousins did not, e.g., relocated far distances apart? Thanks for sharing, Marian.

    1. Meetings were increasingly difficult to schedule as the later generation had children, got busier with careers, and many of course moved away. There was a reunion 25 years ago that attracted dozens of cousins. Great fun!

  2. Very interesting about the monthly meetings. I am in awe that they were able to pull that off. In my Kolberg family there were yearly family reunions from 1939 to 1954 where cousins came from across the entire US. I can remember as a child attending some of those. What I did not know, until I began genealogy was that minutes of those reunions were kept as well. I was blessed that a cousin gave me the minute book (along with many other items) which I am so pleased to have. In 1999-2002 my mother and I reactivated the family reunions and in the one in 1999 we had over 200 cousins attend. In 2000 we even had cousins in Germany that I had located in my research attend. But as you say interest dwindled as cousins were so far spread across the country/world.

    1. Cheryl, amazing that your family had yearly reunions for 15 years, even during the war years. How fortunate that you now are the keeper of the minute book and can share the contents with cousins and future generations. Thanks for your comments.

  3. It was great to hear you speak last Sunday. Great ideas presented!

    1. I spotted you in the audience! TY for attending, TY for reading and commenting on this post.