Saturday, March 5, 2011

Open Discussion: What Kind of Paper Trail Are YOU Leaving Behind?

Last week, I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the comments that readers posted about What To Do With Skeletons in the Closet. So I thought it would be fun to open this blog up for Open Discussions from time to time.

Today's Open Discussion Weekend is about the kind of paper (or digital) trail YOU are leaving behind for your descendants. Several memes have found their way to me this week, so it would appear the greater Universe is trying to tell me something.

Last weekend, I began tackling the paper monster surrounding my desk and I filled four trash bags with shredded paper. It's a well known fact that I don't do paper! More accurately, I don't manage paper in the way that I would like to. I might need that for something! Digital filing? Much better at that. Could you email that to me as a pdf?

Whenever I make a purchase I always keep a receipt. I think that goes back to my childhood when I bought 16 Magazine, Datebook and Tiger Beat the day they hit the newsstands. I went from drugstore to drugstore with my magazines and always wanted them in a paper bag, with the receipt, so that the other drugstore wouldn't accuse me of shoplifting. I wanted proof I'd purchased my magazines.

Now at the end of the week, I have to unload all of those receipts for groceries, lunches, gas, etc. out of my wallet. Right through the shredder. As I picked up some "window food" at a drive-through the other night, I immediately put the receipt into the litter bag. That was when this bolt of lightning struck me and I thought about how I treasure and preserve every little piece of paper remnant left behind by my ancestors.

From my ancestors, I have receipts, notes that bills have been paid, ration coupons, school report cards, newspaper clippings that have no immediate connection to anything or anyone! It's a rather eclectic assortment of paper ephemera. No doubt, you have such a paper archive on your ancestors as well.

Last year it was announced that the Library of Congress acquired the entire Twitter archive.

This all made me wonder what kind of paper (or digital) trail are we leaving behind for our descendants? Are we setting aside the more important paper documents that would be wise to pass down? Or are some of us accumulating such a massive paper trail that, rather than sort through it, our descendants will begin shredding everything without looking through it?

In 100 years will a descendant be treasuring a receipt for a Whopper Junior and fries, while saying in astonishment, "You won't believe the horrible kind of food my great-great grandfather ate back then. It's no wonder his death certificate said he died of heart disease!"

For discussion:

  • What is your relationship with paper?
  • Are you saving or sorting not only for your immediate needs (taxes, insurance, wills) or with future generations in mind?
  • If all of the paper in your home right now were placed in a time capsule and opened 100 years from now, what kind of portrait would it paint of your life?
  • Are you treating your digital footprint any differently from your paper footprint?
I encourage your comments and discussion on this topic!


  1. Relationship with paper - love/love.
    Future generations in mind? - Absolutely. And if my descendants don't preserve this stuff, I'm coming back to haunt them.
    Time capsule portrait. - Not a hoarder, but at least a packrat, especially where it concerns my children.
    Digital footprint? - Hmmmm....

  2. Wow, I haven't thought about that, you have some good points. I know I liked to look at checks my ancestors wrote a hundred years ago, but doubt my descendants will want to see my bank statements. Funny how life is.

  3. I wrote a similar piece not long ago titled Digital Media Explosion where I pointed out that we are growing digital data at an absolutely staggering rate and much of that digital data sits in a precarious position. As genealogists, we are interested in the long-term preservation of this material which poses some additional challenges.

    Hundreds of terabytes of this archival data will be lost each year due to poor digital archive practices. While much of our legacy is paper based, and I too love my paper 'antiquities', each of us are preserving the digital footprints that we hope to last for generations beyond.

    It is our responsibility to become very informed about the dizzying growth of the digital medium and plan for long-term storage of vast amounts of digital data.

    I upgraded to HD video about 6 months ago and noticed that a 19 second video clip was over 100MB! Now imagine what the digital archives of our great grandchildren will look like.

  4. There is always the one ancestor that left EVERYTHING! And when you first find it, it is like a gold treasure... but then years later you are wondering what to do with their "everything" & your "everything". Or at least that has been my issue.

    I truly wonder if what I am throwing away will make a big difference in future research. I have even hunted down & argued a few times over until I got the right spelling of my name on my Grand's burial plot... the lady thought I was being silly, but you & I both know it is not :)

    And I thought of scanning it all in... but then what if they can't use my digital version when they are ready? I am moving my paper trail stacks into their disc & jump drive stacks...

    I use the MRIN system of filing & making 3 ring binder books... where I keep whatever I do get or find in acid free protective sleeves behind the individual's MRIN... Some use filing cabinets, but let's face it.. in the military, a filing cabinet screams "re-do" every move :)

    For me personally, I think that what I keep or don't keep will behalf the fun & excitement of the next generations hunt... just like it is with me. If I handed them "everything" there would be no fun mystery :)

  5. My house is always in need of paper purging. My husband and I tend to be savers, and we love books. I hope to leave organized papers for my descendants, which I hope they keep most. However knowing that in my mother's basement is folders of high school wrestling records that is not important to me that my brother and I may have to figure out what to do with some day. I try to save and sort my paper and digital things, but where is the time?! Nice blog post.