Leaving a family history legacy for future generations

I’ve been thinking about what we can do to plan for passing on our research, photos and family history legacy to future generations – whether this means to our own families or to others interested more generally in our findings. All this has been weighing on my mind for two reasons. First, I’ve spent a lot of time recently reorganising and refining my photographic archives. More about that in the next two posts. Second… well, to be honest, my grown-up children are not particularly interested in their ancestry, and I suspect this is the reality for many keen genealogists. I have even featured in a video sketch made by one of their friends, in which I turn every topic into an ancestral story… In the video my leaping off point was an onion! It’s perfectly understandable really: I wasn’t interested in my Dad’s stamp collection, and I have no right to expect my family to be fascinated by the events surrounding 3xG Uncle Anthony’s transportation to Australia. I just wish they were – it’s a truly fascinating story! 😀

So this post is written from the personal starting point of trying to work out what we can do to interest family members in our research… The next two posts will be about organising digital photos and making them more accessible and interesting, but in this first post we’ll look at ‘genealogy wills’ and a few other ideas for trying to engage our children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces…. anyone! – in their family legacy.

Make a ‘Genealogy Will’
First, the serious stuff… The idea is that you leave a genealogy-specific Will along with your regular one to be dealt with by your executors. The aim is to do what we can to ensure our research doesn’t just get wiped or go in the bin when we’re no longer around. RootsWeb published an outline ‘Genealogy Will’ that you can download and fill in the gaps or use as the basis for writing your own. It includes listing people who might be interested in taking custody of and responsibility for maintaining your work, and failing that, organisations you think might be interested in receiving it. FamilyTree.com write about how you might plan for this in their blogpost Create a Genealogical Will, although it’s aimed at readers in the United States. It makes sense, if possible, that rather than leave this to our executors, we identify for ourselves a family member who is prepared to be the custodian of our work, and show them the ropes. I hope all this is well into the future for us all, and I don’t feel inclined to write one just yet. For a start, absolutely no one springs to mind who would want to take it on. And who knows what the technology will look like by then or what online companies and local history societies will have survived? But when I do write it I intend to include websites and passwords, and to review it from time to time.

Creative ideas for passing on a family history legacy
There are lots of articles online that focus on leaving a family history legacy for your family. Obviously, different ideas will appeal to different people. Mostly, they involve creative activity, either for you alone, or with children. Some of them are about treasuring memories made together and having them to pass on, rather than specifically about our ancestry.

  • If you enjoy doing crafty things with the children or grandchildren, working together on a family scrapbook might appeal.
  • A Google search for ‘children’s family tree book’ turns up lots of books to get children interested: some stories, some for recording information.
  • Older children or teenagers with an interest might like to help collate and chronicle old family records, letters and heirlooms.
  • Keen cooks might enjoy writing up a collection of family recipes to be passed on. I like the idea of that, but to be honest my Mum viewed cooking as a chore and I only have two genuine heirloom family recipes, which is a bit limited as the basis for a family recipe book. Even this lack of recipes could reflect social history: I remember watching a TV history programme in which it was suggested that girls growing up during the war, particularly in cities, didn’t learn to cook from their mothers because their mothers were just making do with what they could get. I know, for example, that my Grandma stopped making bread and all they had was the ‘utility loaf‘.
  • If your kids have so far resisted the call of family history but you fancy enlisting the grandchildren by stealth, a shelf of family treasures is suggested, the idea being that you use them as visual aids while you tell stories about who they belonged to.
  • Needleworkers might enjoy putting together a quilt using fabric pieces from old clothes. I enjoy embroidery and have made a number of items for family members, such as Christmas stockings, each dedicated to the recipient. I know these are/will be treasured and passed on as heirlooms, but that’s a story that starts with them and me. It doesn’t bring in the older family legacy.
  • Making a video or audio recording, perhaps at a family gathering, might be more your thing. StoryCorps, whose mission is ‘to preserve the stories of our time in America’ have published lists of starter questions to get people talking.
  • If you’re a musical family you might like to make a recording of a song or musical piece. We produced a ‘singing Christmas card’ in 2002 – a CD of us singing ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’. Obviously we didn’t send it to everyone on our list, but those who got it appreciated it; and I still enjoy it every year at Christmas.
  • If you always wondered if you had a book inside you, you might try your hand at an autobiography or even a larger history of the family based on your research. In her video How to Write and Self Publish Your Family History Book, Lisa Louise Cooke interviews J.M. Phillips, self-published author of Lamlash Street: A Portrait of 1960’s Post-War London Through One Family’s Story. In the video the author shares her story together with some hints at getting started and seeing it through to the end. Of course, you don’t have to publish your work; you might just write down memories and stories in an exercise book. I was passed just such a personal account by a distant cousin, and it provided a rather gossipy insight into the family life of my great grandfather.
  • Another idea I’ve seen is to bury a time capsule. I find it quite difficult to think through the logistics of that, unless you have a settled country pile that’s likely to remain in the family – but if you have such a residence then this might be the idea for you! Safe.co.uk published How to do your own time capsule and keep your memories safe, aimed broadly at people with our interests. Another blogpost aimed more at getting children to bury time capsules was published by the Museum of Wales: Bury a Time Capsule. You can even buy special time capsules guaranteed to keep the contents safe for a certain number of years.

Perhaps there’s something there to interest you. If you have any other ideas, or if you’ve already managed to interest family members in your family history, please do share the secrets of your success in the comments. In the next post we’ll move onto photographs.