Family History is Everyone’s Responsibility

Is your family history in bad shape or non-existent?

In 1990, my Geiszler grandparents each had medical problems that left them unable to care for themselves. They were were admitted into a nursing home. Grandma Geiszler died in 1995 with Grandpa passing away in 1999. The custodian of their estate changed in the early 90s from their son to grandpa’s brother. When the uncle died in 1994, the state took over their estate. All of the family heritage items seemed to evaporate into thin air with no one directly involved in the estate to care for it.

My mother-in-law inherited boxes of items that belonged to her uncle after he passed away. Add this to a collection of things that belonged to her parents, grandparents and her own items, and you can understand that she was drowning in stuff. Throwing the stuff out didn’t feel right. Sorting though it all was overwhelming.

My mother downsized after my dad passed away. I lived many states away and couldn’t help preserve the important historical items, even if only a photo was to be taken and the item ultimately parted with.

Friends have lost their spouses and had to sell the homes they have lived in for numerous years taking no time as to preserving the memories. Other friends have had to handle the home and possessions of their parents after their death. And still others have lost their possession in floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes.

What’s the point?

The title of this post should give you a clue. Preserving family histories can not be left to old age. It can not be left to the person who is ‘into it’. Family history is everyone’s responsibility. And if you wait too long to do something, it will be gone forever.

I have heard many times that my father was a roadie for a rock band in the 1960s. I never stopped to ask him to tell me more about that life. And then he died in 2004.

My mother had a collection of dinnerware and salt and pepper shakers that she kept throughout my childhood and young adult years. I never thought to photograph the items until it was too late. I don’t wish to bore you with more sob stories. You know them. We all do.

Instead, I’m going to challenge you to do something to preserve your family history. Here are some ideas:


My great aunt Margie, in her 80s, wrote many stories until her hand started hurting. Then used a tape recorder to verbally share the stories. The stories flowed easily and were so rich. When she got stuck, I supplied more questions for her.

On a recent vacation, my husband asked questions of his mother and his father, separately. Some of the stories we’ve heard before. We were able to gather more details to these stories. Other stories were new to us. It was easy. And with modern technology (voice recorders on lap tops or other mobile devices, the cost isn’t an issue). 

I have often thought of a story and grabbed my smart phone. I quickly made a voice note so I didn’t forget it. I would be in the grocery store and quickly record the story. Sure people thought I was weird, but I don’t pay attention to them. Instead, I focus on the people who will love the stories I recorded. 
Whether you do paper, text, audio, or video recording, preserve the stories. The stories really do make family history interesting.

Raise your hand if all of your family’s photos are labeled with the names, dates, places, and possibly the reason the photos were taken. I’ll bet most people reading this post do not have their hands up. If yours is up, you are awesome and I wish you were in my family.

Use an archival quality pen and label the back of your photos. Please don’t use a ball point pen. If you wish, you could also label the photo album if photos are unable to be removed from the albums. Do the very best you can to leave behind the details of the photos so that when you pass away (or your loved one with the collection) someone is around to remember who these pictures were of.

If you have a large collection of digital photos, label them. Keep up with the metadata technology for all of these digital photos we have. Don’t leave your family members with thousands of unlabeled digital images.

If your priceless documents and photos are in Tupperware boxes, shoe boxes, and damaging photos albums, you’ll kick yourself later when the photos are faded, stained, and in bad shape. If your historical items are in an attic where critters might be using them as dinner, you might want to salavage them before further damage occurs. If treasures are buried in someone’s house without being properly cared for, your heart will sink when they are thrown into the trash.

Take time to put things of historical, genealogical, and sentimental value in the proper storage. Photograph things as well. If your mother collected American Girl Dolls, take photos of the collections. If your grandmother collected dishes that had the popular movie stars of her time on them, take a few photos of the collection and individual pieces. If your uncle was a carpenter, take photos of his tools and creations.


Stop hoarding the family history. Stop ignoring the family history. Share it. Tell the stories at family gatherings. Share the stories in small ‘teachable’ moments. Share the written histories rather than leave them on the shelves. Make sure the the photos and stories are on places where other family researchers can find them. Or simply share the stories because you’ll discover a lot about yourself in the process. Your children and grandchildren will also learn a lot as well. Perhaps the family story you share will make them laugh, cry, feel inspired, or provide much needed insight.

Yes, I am very PASSIONATE about genealogy. You don’t have to have my level of interest. You do need to do something.  We all have a role to play in preserving our family history. Do your part. Preserving the family’s story is everyone’s responsibility.

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

6 thoughts on “Family History is Everyone’s Responsibility

  1. Thanks for the comment Karen. To go paperless, stay hard copy, or do both is something every genealogist needs to decide for themselves. Fire, flood, hurricane, pests, humidity, and domestic squabbles can damage just as much stuff as the technical glitch. I think the choice someone makes depends upon their circumstances and resources.

  2. Thank you, Devon, this is great advice. WE may know who the people in the photos are, but our descendants or other relatives may not. I keep paper records and photos in a binder with pvc-free sleeves, out of sunlight. I display only copies of precious family photos– if the copies fade, no biggie, but I don't want the originals to be damaged.

    And Wendy, THANK YOU for adding that! I read a newsletter of a genealogist who is always about going paperless, and I disagree with him on this– we may not always HAVE internet, "clouds", and technology, or it may change, rendering the "paperless" records inaccessible. I am a firm believer in having a paper trail, more than one if possible!

  3. And while you're scanning documents and photos, make printed or paper copies too. What will happen if technology changes so much that those digital files are no longer accessible? All the more reason to create that scrapbook, traditionally or digitally.

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