Where will your data go when you die?

On the thread about volunteer work, @judyasarkof wrote:

I also volunteer with our town Natural History Program that is seeking to pull together all biota data for our town - including data downloaded from iNat, ebird, other sources, paper notes tucked under beds, etc. Things that can be lost when older folks die.

That got me wondering: I have two decades of Grinnell journals and still going strong. All hard-copy, handwritten in cursive. Pretty much an entire lifetime of observations, excluding childhood.

Well, I’m not going to be around forever. When the time comes for me to leave this world, I don’t want my lifetime of observations to dissipate and be lost – maybe discarded by someone who doesn’t understand what they are. I have bought books at secondhand bookstores that show signs of having been through an estate sale at some point.

So, what arrangements should I make to ensure that these volumes of Grinnell journals end up in a place where they can be useful to someone?


You can donate them to some local museum or thing like that as what happens with insect collections when some people die. Or scan all of them and create an online form on a website.


Aah, I didn’t fear that my small brother knows what I know and he tells others what I told him, so it’s like in my village. Everyone knows what I know rest is uploaded on inaturalist.


It is a question I spend hours pondering. Many thousands of my records have already been sent to recording schemes, biological record centres and conservation bodies, where they will live on in some form, getting passed around from data base to data base gradually or dramatically losing their accuracy along the way.

I like the idea of having all my records together in one reference dataset that is publicly available. That would be possible on the National Biodiversity Network, but getting them all into a computer is a huge job. I need to computerise three years worth of records per year for the next decade, and that isn’t happening at present. They are all written down long-hand on paper so at least those record books can go to an institution and they might get computerised at some point after I die, but someone else doing the inputting is bound to introduce many errors.


I don’t know of a definitive answer, but I agree with others including @jhbratton - Getting them digitized is probably the single biggest thing that you can do. Natural history collections (NHCs) often have a backlog of old notes that are handwritten (and specimens with handwritten tags) to digitize to get them into databases. Across many NHCs this has been a monumental task over the past 30-ish years and the work of a lifetime for some curators.

So while they might be happy to take handwritten manuscripts of notes, they would likely get stored in some corner of a facility while the folks there work through older records of more known value (to them, no disrespect to anyone’s records). An already digitized set of records will be much more accessible to anyone in the world via searching and has a much greater chance of being available and used.

I think the best bet for maximum potential usefulness would be to make specific arrangements with some institution for any set of records, and get them into a format that institution can work with and store. It isn’t always clear how to do this (and not necessarily a priority for NHC workers who are always overloaded). If there’s some type of scheme already in place (like the National Biodiversity Network) that you can incorporate them into, that would be ideal.

Honestly, as someone who has worked in NHCs and digitized old records (what a pain), having my records available for posterity is one of the things that I love about iNat. While the process of getting iNat records into GBIF and their access isn’t absolutely perfect, it is way better and easier than any other option I would have.


You can approach a library or museum. But they too have to consider what they accept (storage space) and as others have said digital would be better. Unless we slide into a dystopian no power, no internet - then an actual turn the pages book will regain value.

Will someone else be able to read your writing? We are now so used to a screen, or machine printing. Handwritten takes deliberate effort.

At the University of Cape Town Library the librarian would have to tactfully and gently explain - thank you for these books, but, we may not keep / use any / all of them. With that recent fire at UCT library historical records were lost. One copy existent. Fire or water damage. Obliterated.


This is a reason I’ve scaled way back on handwriting field notes and tend to put notes in my iNat records. No one is going to dig through my 40 years of field notebooks for little natural history observations after I’m gone. If a university research museum doesn’t want them, they’ll likely be lost at some point and I’m unlikely to take the time to digitize them all. So it goes.


A few years ago, I was involved in making space in our office building and one of the tasks was to get rid of many decades worth of paper scientific journals that filled several bookcases. Most were complete sets of some journals. It was a disturbing job, having to haul off all this material – all this history – to a recycling facility. But there really was no good argument to keep it, given that all these articles were available digitally so why were we taking up space with paper versions?

I recognize the space-saving value of relying just on digital versions of printed material. But that assumes that digital storage and retrieval will still be there many years from now. I still have this nagging feeling that we are losing information every time we throw away paper records.


Not an answer, but a related tangent-- wouldn’t it be cool if someone did a variant on the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project, where people can submit notebooks/sketchbooks that are specifically nature observation themed? That would be awesome, I think. It’s a bit sad thinking about how many people have poured so much time and effort into nature journals that could absolutely still have useful information and observations in them, only for them to end up in a landfill somewhere unappreciated at the end of the person’s life.


You should definitely find a library interested in them. Maybe even the national archives! I think they do collect that kind of thing.

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As the child of a librarian, I really feel this! It’s so difficult to make any argument against the efficiency and space-saving offered by digital records (not to mention the portability and ease of access), but I will always have a hard time throwing away actual documents, especially journals and books. I have nearly broken out into cold sweats at the occasional 3 a.m. thought that all of our electronic information (iNaturalist included) could one day go poof…I suppose I shouldn’t have read Station Eleven.

It’s not always easy to find a taker for a collection of notes and journals, though it can’t hurt to ask.


Start digitizing them yourself; don’t leave it to others!

You can scan your books with a conventional flatbed scanner (e.g. CanoScan LiDE 400) or with a copy stand. Your local museum or library may have a copy stand that they would be willing to allow you to access. Here is a helpful guide on using copy stands.

DIY copy stands are quite feasible: A mounted camera; even a smartphone camera is likely sufficient, for a simple project aimed at recording handwritten notes, provided that you make the camera stationary (use a mount or physically tape it to a rigid structure) and ensure good, consistent lighting (lamps + homemade light diffusers).

Since your observations are already organized in books, you can re-assemble the scans into PDF books. One tool that might accomplish this purpose for you is ImageMagick. The PDF can be uploaded to the Internet Archive, which I believe will give you the best chance of having the data persist for decades to come. Be sure to give your books a maximally compatible license (such as CC BY), which will maximize the likelihood of others retaining and sharing your data further.

Lastly, when I’m doing a digitization project I usually grab a good audiobook (LibriVox offers free books) or some podcasts and the scanning becomes something more for my hands to do while my ears enjoy the story. It really makes the process feel less arduous.


I’ve done a similar purge as i near retirement. Many file cabinet drawers of scientific papers piled up into stacks many feet high, tossed out, and for similar reasons, all are now available from Google Scholar or other sites and many reflected my interests that a person behind me may not have. But i’ve also have made several trips to a National Archives office to copy old Forest reports, like original forest reconnaisance reports dating from 1911, range reports dating from 1909, wildlife reports dating from the 1930s, administrative reports from 1908, and many photos. So thankfully people in the past were diligent about properly archiving reports and photos, possibly never imaging the value and interest they would have in an employee many decades later.


This is a problem that causes me great existential angst. So much of what we are is of little value to the wider world. When I die, which I hope will not be too soon, my children will go through my books without the reverence I have for them. As we all will do. I’m trying to put my knowledge online, but as others have mentioned, the internet, or power, may not be available forever, so even that could vanish. Formats change, and become unreadable. I will make arrangements in my Will for things I consider of value, but I cannot be certain that anyone will want any of my work. The information held in my head, will also be lost - I have no one to pass it on to. I’ve waited all day to respond to this thread, because it does cause me anguish.
Perhaps I will end with that wonderful moment in the film Blade Runner where the android Roy Batty says - “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Time to die.”


I was actually thinking of Blade Runner 2049 (the sequel) earlier and it’s reference to an unexplained event in the years between the two films called “the Blackout” in which much digital data was lost. Our digital world might indeed be a fragile thing that could be lost to some unforeseen event in the future.


Speaking as a lawyer (which I hardly ever do here), there are ways to ensure that your data will be preserved, digitized, and potentially, that the intellectual property will continue to benefit your estate/ the wider world. Unfortunately, it does cost money that might otherwise go to your family beneficiaries. You should either provide some funds for your executor or another organization to do the work of preserving/ digitizing. And you should assign your intellectual property as part of your estate, either to family members or to organizations you trust to preserve it.


Have you considered using some sort of voice-to-text software to transcribe this information quickly? I think that it would be a bit faster than other alternatives to do little sessions of reading aloud and proofread during or after watching the computer transcription of your words.

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I am now in my 52nd year of writing field notes and filling field journals. This same question occurs to all of us. Certainly my millenial child will not want the hard copies of everything/anything. Uploading available and suitable data to electronic repositories like eBird and iNaturalist in an important part of archiving data, but of course, those repositories don’t include all of the story. In my case, such repositories only include a fraction of the data in my field journals. And with many potential archiving options like local libraries not willing to take personal records from just anyone, we are left we few alternatives. Many years ago, I made a strategic decision that I would get a good flatbed scanner and devote the time to creating electronic copies of all my stuff. I’ve had the advantage of being retired now for about 11+ years. Last year, I completed the scanning of 80+ field journals and 40 years of other loose records, bird checklists, etc. I still have a few odds and ends to scan (including my genealogical research journals and the personal journals of my late pal Greg Lasley), but the effort to date has accumulated about 10,000 “items” (images) which take up about 4.5 Gigs of storage, i.e. an amount that will easily fit on an inexpensive thumbdrive these days. Everything is in jpg and/or pdf format and I’m assuming those electronic formats will be readable well into the future. My intention is to load these materials onto thumbdrives, one of which will go to my offspring, one to the local Audubon society, and perhaps other copies to other long-term institutions like the office of the National Wildlife Refuge where I worked for 16 years.


Everything becomes obsolete and lots of stuff gets left behind each time we adopt new media and technology platforms.

At a family reunion, many of our pics were unavailable to share as they were stored on obsolete media and platforms (V8 movies, floppies, Zip disks, succeeding versions of disks and old hard drives, VHS video, defunct photo storage services, etc.*).

Honestly, the photo albums were the easiest to share. I was so glad we had some sepia prints of great grandparents to show people.

(*I have half a closet of this stuff. :flushed:)


Scan it. Upload it.

Then bury the original in a “time capsule”.
Because in 50 years nobody might care.
But in 5000 years you will be a scientific sensation!