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You Never Know Until You Ask

By Daniel Hubbard | March 18, 2012

Last week I asked a cousin if she had some pictures that had belonged to her mother, my Aunt Melva, who recently passed away. My cousin’s husband said, “Oh I have those scanned and put on CD. Do you want one? I can get it to you next week.” Yes, I certainly did want one.

In the introduction to genealogy talk that I’ve given a few times recently, I’ve been encouraging people to interview relatives and giving them tips about how to conduct an interview. There are two types of questions that don’t directly have to do with people’s memories of family stories or family events. That makes them questions that are easily ignored. One type is “Do you have…?” along with the appropriate follow up to an affirmative answer, “Can I borrow/scan/photograph it?” The other type of question is “Have you ever seen…?” or “Do you know what might have happened to…?” I was not exactly interviewing my cousin when I asked about the pictures but the effect was the same. I now have the CD. That wasn’t all.

I got a set of large envelopes of “genealogy papers.” They had thought that I had gotten everything years ago but they found a bit more. Each envelope has the name of an ancestor written on it, the date the envelope was sealed (generally during 1985) and the words “To the vault.” This is giving me a lot to think about besides interview questions.

To the Vault

Even in the days before hard drive crashes, backups were important. She did not want anything important to be lost or destroyed. Even Xerox copies need to be backed up. Extra copies in a seperate location were and still are important. Nowadays you might scan them and put them on a CD and put them in a safety deposit box. Back then a photocopy in the vault was the best thing to do.

I’ve gone through the envelopes a bit and there are some originals of things in them as well and at least one bit of historical background information. Things that were important to preserve as-is. There were also a few thermal copies. They will be the first things that I’ll scan and I’m glad they look as good as they do after nearly thirty years. Thermal copies are known for their short lifespan. If you have any, I’d recommend scanning them or making photocopies before they fade beyond legibility. You can recognize them by their slippery smoothness that will remind you of some receipts. One of the hardest things about backing up documents is using technology that will last and then updating the backed up information so that it can still be read in the future. Unfortunately, create, store and forget in the realm of backups hasn’t worked since people stopped baking clay tablets and leaving them buried in the desert.


It was so nice to find the papers not in one big collection marked “important” but sorted by the ancestor in question. Inside each envelope the papers were in chronological order. This was something I emphasized for the beginners. Keeping your evidence organized is far more important than one might think at first. If the evidence isn’t kept straight in reality, it won’t be straight in your head either. Every new piece of information can send you back to the old to double check or reinterpret the old. Being able to find things is a prerequisite.


Of course, I know who prepared these envelopes but it is worth pointing out that knowing where something originated, who had it before and in this case, who assembled the material is important. If I did not know who put them together and why, I would have a lot more thinking to do about just what the material means. I would have many, many questions.

Another important thing about this collection of papers is that each envelope was dated. I know when each envelope was closed. Anything important that came to light after that date won’t be inside and I know why it isn’t there. I know where the envelopes have been for thirty years, locked up in a safety deposit box in a bank vault, untouched.

I also know that this was not just the typical pile of genealogy papers. This is a carefully selected set of key documents. Many may be things I already have but this was her selection, so it reflects her thought process and the thought process of another researcher can be a good thing to understand when try to work through and understand their work. I can look at her conclusions from the point of view that the contents of these envelopes ought to provide the proof.

Not bad for asking about some photographs.


If you happen to be looking for some more Irish on the day after St. Patrick’s Day, try Wednesday’s post, Urban, Ethnic America, The Irish Way.

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Topics: Methods, Records | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “You Never Know Until You Ask”

  1. Friday Finds – 03/23/12 Says:
    July 1st, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    […] You Never Know Until You Ask, Daniel Hubbard […]