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Creating Records that are Disaster-Proof


March 22, 2011 by Valerie Elkins

Japan has experienced disasters before. During WWII the 82 day Battle of Okinawa or tetsu no ami [rain of steel] ended with 90% of all the buildings on Okinawa Japan being destroyed. This means the city halls with all the koseki records were destroyed.

Only those people who remained after the war and rebuilt their family records have their records preserved there now. The Okinawans who left for other countries have no records to find. My heart always drops when a client tells me their ancestor came from Okinawa prefecture as I have yet to being successful in finding records that survived and were rebuilt – I remain hopeful though.

I won’t go into the human costs of this war or other disasters occurring right now in Japan because my emotions are too tender to go there. I know people personally effected by the devastation of the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear disasters and my heart aches for them.

So for this post I will keep it academic and discuss how to protect your records from a disaster.

  1. Don’t keep your records (birth, death, marriage and other important documents) in one place! Now granted, we all don’t live in a tsunami zone, but what about fire? I think my family’s court house in Alabama must have had a target on it, as it burned more times than I can rightly recall (even after the Civil War). We all take for granted the security of a safety-deposit box at a bank, but after the latest tragedy in Japan, that option would not have done them any good. Even a safe in your own home is not the perfect answer. Ideally, I want you to not feel safe with only using one or 2 options, but a variety.
  2. Use the Cloud. Scan the documents and pictures and email them to yourself and/or use an off-site server like Carbonite to backup your documents, pictures and important family history files.
  3. Make an emergency backup of files on several flashdrives and keep them where you can retrieve them quickly. Maybe keep one in an emergency backpack if you have to leave in a hurry because a railroad car derailed a mile away with toxic gas leaking and the neighborhood is being evacuated until further notice - it happened near us once. Keep another with someone you trust, who lives in another city like your parents or a safety deposit box in their town’s bank.
  4. Store the originals in one place and in archival safe vinyl sleeves.
  5. Let someone, a lawyer or executor for your estate know where you keep the records.

These records are more than just dates and facts. They document our lives. The destruction of  both personal and public archives through natural disasters or state archives/libraries in danger of closing due to lack of funding (just Google: libraries closing lack of funding and be very amazed) all mean one thing…lack of primary source documents and lack of access for all of us.

Being a genealogist and seeing the destruction of documents and records, whether willingly, neglectfully or accidentally is tragic. There is a saying “If you are prepared, you shall not fear.” Let us go forward not with fear, but with wisdom and order. -Let us gather our records in one place, -let’s scan and digitize them, – let’s store them off-sight and  -let us make duplicate copies stored in a variety of locations and then -let us tell someone we trust where that is.

I pray that our lives may be spared the tragedy we have witnessed in Japan, but there are things we can do when bad things happen, to not make it worse.

To those who have ancestors in Japan and have been putting off finding them, I suggest not postponing this any longer. Your family’s records are found in only one place on the planet – your ancestor’s hometown city hall. I recommend you move to find those records and obtain them for you and your children and grandchildren. Do not live to regret not doing this sooner.

To donate to help those in Japan where 100% of the donations go to help all the victims in Japan, please click here.


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