|Genealogical Record Keeping or "Now that I've found it, what do I do with it?"by William Dollarhide|
|When people first get interested in their family history they
are not fully prepared for what is about to happen to them. Genealogy is an addiction. New
genealogists discover that they now have to do this hobby for the rest of their life!
The first few weeks of intense genealogical research turns what used to be lovely, well-ordered persons into compulsive, determined zealots with only one thing on their mind... get that genealogy stuff! Husbands go night after night without their dinner, children are left to fend for themselves, and relatives begin answering their phone with, "Oh, it's you again... but I thought I already told you everything I know."
It is a genealogical fact of life that something strange happens to nice people they lose control of their lives. Those of you who are just starting out in genealogy and have not learned this yet should put this magazine away NOW. I would not want to be the one who caused you to spend the rest of your life looking for dead relatives.
But, if you are already hooked and have a large collection of paper that is taking over your house then you should stay with us. I will try to give you some ideas for organizing your genealogical records (otherwise known as "piles of paper").
The Paper Problem
If you can describe your genealogy collection as "piles of paper" you may be interested in how I found a way to organize mine. My first success with organizing my genealogy came after a disaster. In 1974, after about two years of doing genealogy, most of my paper files were neatly stacked (in manageable piles) on a drafting table built from saw horses and a flat door. When one of the saw horses collapsed, one end of the table came crashing down and scattered all of my two years of genealogy all over the room. My experience of picking up the paper from the floor is where I first began developing a method of organizing that mess. I will describe what I learned.... and if you truly want to get organized too, then I suggest that you start by throwing your entire paper collection into one large pile in the center of a room. With that done, let's see how you can pick them up, and in what order. But first, let's identify what is in that pile of paper.
What's in the Pile?
Category 1 - Notes and Documents
Virtually all of these records in the Notes and Documents category are "events". We may find information on our ancestors in the form of family groups, but more often we locate information as references to births, marriages, deaths, burials, and residences. A "residence event" may be a military record, a deed, a land record, or a tax list, for example. A residence event may simply be a record that proves that your ancestor lived in a certain place at a certain time.
A copy of a birth certificate may give several events: a birth, a residence for the parents, residence for an informant, name and location of a hospital, etc. An ancestor mentioned in a book as the deputy sheriff is another "residence event". A cemetery record reveals a "burial event", and so on. If you receive a family group sheet in the mail giving all kinds of events for members of a family, you could call that sheet a "family event".
Not everything you know about your families may come from facts written down on paper. You may have recordings on audio or video tape that includes genealogical information. If so, you need to transcribe the genealogy onto paper and include that paper sheet in your Notes and Documents section.
Begin thinking of this first category as a "database". This is a paper database of facts about your ancestors, and no computer is required.....not yet anyway. After separating this category from the others, your goal should be to have every fact you have ever found on your ancestors in one group the Notes and Documents. If you have facts in your memory that have never been written down, now is the time to do that. The Notes and Documents category is going to be your complete database of information. And later, we are going to organize it in such a manner that you will be able to find any particular piece of paper in seconds! For now, just get every one of the sheets of paper that belong in the Notes and Documents category separated from the other two categories.
Category 2 - Compiled Sheets
Dealing with the paper to be separated into the Compiled Sheets category will not be difficult. You can put family group sheets in one notebook or file folder, for example. The same is possible with pedigree charts and descendancies. But, you cannot organize these types of records very well if they are all interfiled with the other categories. After all of these materials are separated from the rest, you may want to work on organizing this category first, because it will probably be the easiest to do.
Make file folders or notebooks to separate the various types of sheets in this category, such as family groups sheets, pedigree charts, and others. When you are done, take your entire family out to McDonalds to celebrate your incredible achievement. For now, ignore that still very large of pile of paper that is in the middle of your kitchen. (If you have dogs or cats, you might want to cover it with plastic wrap).
Category 3 - Research Aids
Items in the Research Aids category are not difficult to organize. You can simply start file folders to collect all of things that relate to Ohio, and label the file "Ohio". You will find that the majority of the Research Aid category can be organized by its geographic origin, e.g., libraries in Indiana, lists of genealogists in Ohio, how to do research in South Carolina, and so on. Research books will organize themselves by being placed on a bookshelf. However, if any of your books contain information about your families, you need to copy those pages from the books and include the copies with the "Notes and Documents" category.
You should be able to organize all of your Research Aids (or call it your "personal library") in no time at all. These materials seem to sort themselves by place, so to get some quick gratification, get the Research Aids organized along with the second category, Compiled Sheets, and you will be left with just one large pile of paper. As it turns out, you can not really organize the Notes and Documents until they are separated from the other two categories so just leave them in the middle of the room as a neat stack of paper until you have the first two categories done. Before wading into the Notes and Documents, reward yourself with a large hot chocolate sundae for having done such a marvelous job of it so far. It would be advised that before starting on the Notes and Documents that you have at least a 24 hour break, and a full night's rest. The next steps get harder.
With category two and three done, you have accomplished a great deal. You will have your compiled sheets in order, and you will have your research library in order. But you still have the first category, Notes and Documents, which is still a very large pile of paper. In this pile are notes and documents on everybody you have collected. You have your paternal side of the family as well as your maternal side of the family in there. Before we take on this awesome task, let's define the reasons that are causing this category to be so difficult to organize.
Problems Related to the Nature of Genealogical Research
To explain, let's forget about families for a moment. Let's assume that the genealogical "events" for individuals, which are found in the notes and documents, precede the work of filling in a family group sheet. And, if that is true, then the first papers that need to be organized are not the family group sheets, but the notes and documents that are used to compile the family group sheets.
Organizing family group sheets, as you already know, is not the problem. The problem is finding that marriage record you know you have.... you know when and where you found it the first time....you even remember the color of the walls of the library, the microfilm reader you were using, the people who were in the room at the time, and what you had for lunch that day you just can't remember where you put that darn marriage record! I will propose a method that will allow you to find any marriage, any birth, any death, or any residence event for any person. And you will be able to do it in seconds.
Problem Two: We gather genealogical information on more people than just our immediate relatives. As a person born with the name Dollarhide, I was born curious about that surname. Today, I collect any person I can find with the name, believing that we are probably related. Any genealogist with an unusual name in their background knows about this we collect a lot of facts about a lot of unknown extra persons simply because they have the right name.
Virtually everything we collect as genealogists can be associated with three types of people in which we have an interest. Therefore, the notes and documents that you have collected will have sheets of paper for three types of people:
1. Ancestors. Of course we are interested in our ancestors, and any piece of paper that gives the name of an ancestor is something we want to save, however slight.
2. Collaterals. These are people who are the brothers and sisters of our ancestors, and their descendants. They are important to us because understanding their genealogy may lead to our own lineages. Therefore, we usually are interested in saving every instance where a known collateral's name is written down somewhere.
3. Suspicious. This may be the largest group of people we collect. We are always finding some person with the right name who lived at the right time in the right place which means the person is highly suspicious of being an ancestor or at least closely related.
Because of the nature of genealogical research, these types of extra people cause us to collect much more paper than just our ancestors. We don't want to lose contact with these people because they may turn out to be an ancestor, so we save every sheet of paper, hence, our paper files grow and grow and grow.
Solving the Paper Collecting Problem
More importantly, if you start thinking about "surnames" instead of "families" as the way you control the paper in your notes and documents files, you have some new options. For example, what if you treated the ancestors, collaterals, and suspicious people as equals? What effect would that have on your note taking? If you sorted your notes and documents by surnames instead of by families, you could create a database of information that was not limited to a family relationship at all. Remember, the notes and documents happen before a family group sheet happens. Therefore, a surname is a unifying factor which brings together people who are ancestors, collaterals, or suspicious. It also frees you from a family oriented filing system.
There is one other important unifying factor in genealogy, and that is the place where someone lived. For example, by collecting and then sorting all Dollarhide who ever lived in North Carolina, regardless of their relationship to me, I would have a database of Dollarhide notes that would be fairly easy to organize. And, I would be able to create family group sheets from that database much easier. So how do we go about creating a surname oriented database? We do it by following some simple rules:
Rules For Saving Notes and Documents
1. Control the sheet size
2. Separate sheets by surname
3. Separate surname sheets by the place of origin
4. Give every sheet a page number
Each of these four rules is explained below:
However, genealogists attempting to use this system will quickly discover that they rarely have enough room on the card to write all the notes they may want to capture. Not only that, genealogists are fond of copying whole pages of text from books, not just a few notes here and there. To make matters even worse, genealogists receive information from a variety of sources letters from relatives, documents from vital statistics offices, interview notes, phone notes, or information from other genealogists. The nature of genealogical research does not allow the use of 3" x 5" cards effectively, because a separate collection of the full-size documents would then be necessary.
We have also been known to go to the library without a note pad, using whatever paper we could beg, borrow, or steal to write down the latest census data we found. If the little sheet of paper is covered with a larger sheet of paper in the file box at home, the little sheet of paper will probably be in the "lost" category in the near future.
Standardizing the sheet size for taking notes using 8-1/2" x 11" paper solves this problem. If every note were taken on this sheet size, the smaller notes can be taped to standard sheets to bring them into conformity, and if a researcher follows this simple rule faithfully, the ability to find notes and documents for later analysis will be enhanced immediately.
To make this technique even better, using a pre-printed form to take all notes has several advantages. First, the sheet size will be controlled at the time the note is taken. 3-hole paper saves having to punch holes later, and the sheet has a place to be filed when taken home. An example of such a form for genealogical note-taking is shown on page 11.
2. Separate Sheets by Surname
Typically, genealogists find themselves sitting in front of a microfilm projector copying down notes from original records. Even if the genealogist was careful to copy all the Johnson family records from one county, what happens sometimes is that another family surname pops up something that was not expected. This happens frequently in the course of collecting genealogical records. The serious mistake is to mix these surnames on the same sheet of paper. If the Brown family is on the same sheet as the Johnson family, even though these two families were not related to each other, the only recourse later may be to use a pair of scissors to get the notes separated by the surname. Therefore, simply starting a new page when another surname is found will separate the surnames at the time the notes are first taken down.
Separating documents into surname books limits what is stored in the books to just the notes and documents and does not admit such things as maps, lists of libraries, genealogical societies, or other material not directly related to a certain surname. (Remember there are two other categories, we're only talking about Notes and Documents now). The goal is to create a collection of reference material relating to a certain surname in such a way that family sheets can be prepared later but assurances that all of the known facts are easy to find.
A family record mentioning several other surnames that married into the family could all be saved as part of the main surname. The surname book contains information about the families and individuals important to the project, not necessarily just the known relatives. This is a key element in storing references in this manner. The problem of what to do with non-relatives has been solved: treat them the same as the relatives at this level of collection. If later research reveals that a reference item is not part of the family at all, the sheet can be removed and discarded. But until that time, the collection can contain any and all references to any surname of interest to the project.
Now the rules begin to make sense. If the same sheet size is used 3-hole, 8-1/2" x 11" notepaper and all surnames are separated on different sheets, a system of collecting notes and documents will pay off. With these two rules only, the note doesn't need to be stacked on top of the pile at home any new sheet can immediately go into a surname book as another page.
3. Separate Surname Sheets by the Place of Origin
We live in a record-keeping society. The jurisdiction that created the record is the place. That jurisdiction must be known before we can learn anything. If this fact is clear, then the idea of separating source material by the place is a logical step to take. Therefore, the many sheets of notes and documents pertaining to one surname can be further separated by the origin of the records. Experienced genealogists know that once the county of residence has been established, a treasure chest of information awaits in the courthouse, the local library, a funeral home, a cemetery, a local genealogical society, etc., all of which can provide much important information about a family that lived in that locality. That information cannot be found without first knowing where to look.
Separating the sheets by the place is an easy task to control because virtually every single genealogical reference item will have a place attached to it. So, the top of the sheet should first show the surname for the record, followed by some designator for the place of origin.
For example, one surname book could contain all the Johnson in Iowa in one section and the Ohio Johnson in another section. If the Johnson family of interest started out with an immigrant to New Jersey, followed by migrations later to Ohio, then Indiana, then Iowa, etc., these states could be arranged in that particular order which would tend to put the family reference material in loose chronological order for the time periods they were in a particular place. This method of collecting source material will place records for certain individuals in more than one place section if a person moved from state to state over the course of his life. Don't worry about this yet we are going to get all of these place-oriented records back when we create family group sheets so get the surnames together in one book, then divide the book by the places of the records.
The place designator can be broken down further. If there were many Johnson in Ohio, it may be worthwhile to separate this section by county. The important thing about this method of organizing notes and documents is that when information about the Johnson family in Ohio is needed, a genealogist knows where to look for what is known about the family in that area. It is also the logical place to file a new piece of information.
The Reference Family Data Sheet example on page 11 indicates how a surname/place designator can be used. A two-letter code commonly used by the U.S. Postal Service is an effective way of giving a place designation. When the note or document is first being prepared, write the surname at the top of the page, then the place designator. The pre-printed form, of course, gives a genealogist a reminder of what needs to be done for every note and document prepared.
4. Give Every Sheet a Page Number
A full sheet number might be Johnson/OH/24, meaning the sheet belongs in the Johnson surname book in the Ohio section, and within that section it is page 24. This sheet number is assigned on a "first-come, first-served" basis, so there is no need to rearrange sheets later to get 1790 records before 1870 records. Genealogists find and collect records in random order, so they can be filed randomly too. This allows for adding sheets within a section as the records are found.
But, since the references have already been sorted by surname/place, the sheet number is simply a designator to put a sheet back into known position, and it provides the means of indexing references sheets later. The page number is a key element in this filing system. If an index is to be prepared in the future, or if a genealogist plans to use a computer some day, page numbers will be critically important.
Back to the Pile
Start slow. Pick up a piece of paper from the pile. What surname does it relate to? Smith? Write "Smith" at the top of the page. What place does it relate to? Kansas? Write "KS" after Smith. Now go get a cardboard box. Mark it "Smith". Place the first sheet of paper in the Smith box. Now get another sheet of paper from the pile and do the same thing. New surname? Get another box.
Along about the third piece of paper, you will probably discover that both Smith and Johnson are mentioned on that one, and if these two names did not marry each other or have some special connection, then you need to use your scissors, and cut the Smith portion apart from the Johnson portion. Now get two blank 8-1/2" x 11" sheets of paper. Stick or tape the Johnson note on one sheet and the Smith note on the other. Label the top of each sheet with the surname and place. Put them in a cardboard box for each surname.
You will also discover some sheets early on that do not lend themselves to be cut up. These are the ones that mention several different surnames in the same paragraph. Cutting up these type of sheets won't work well, so put these to one side so you can take them to the nearest photocopy machine. You will need to make as many copies as there are ancestral surnames mentioned. Remember, we are trying to separate all of our notes and documents by surname if that means copying a resource more than once, that is what it will take.
A marriage record is an example of two surnames mentioned that properly should go in two different surname books. You could make a copy of the marriage record so one could be filed with the groom's surname, the other with the bride's maiden surname... or you could simply make a quick note on a new sheet with the names, dates, places, and a cross-reference notes that tells a reader that a full marriage document is filed in a different surname book. That cross-reference note is a full size sheet, and could take the place of another marriage document in another surname book.
As you see the sheets building in the boxes, you should begin to see what is happening. You are building surname files.. and isn't it exciting! But even if you are not bubbling with excitement yet, this is what you will need to do to your current notes and documents to adopt this filing system. If you are willing to do it, you will love what happens when you have them all prepared this way.
Once you have all the sheets of paper off the floor, your pile will not exist anymore. You now have several cardboard boxes with nifty stacks of 8-1/2" x 11" paper in them. So, grab the box of your choice (how about Johnson) and get a 3-ring binder that will hold all of them. Too many for one binder? Add more binders as necessary. Next, get someone to clean off the kitchen table. Now, go through the entire Johnson stack and make smaller stacks of the Johnson sheets for each place the Johnson lived. Sheets that are not already 3-hole punched need to be punched now.
Creating stacks for each place is sort of like correlating pages, and you could possibly involve other members of your family in this exercise, "OK, Don, I want you to collect all of the Johnson in Iowa in your stack. And, Angie, you have Ohio". If the family starts fighting over which state they get, promise that when they are done they will all get fed. (Which, of course, is something that none of the family has done together since you first got into genealogy).
If you have sheets that are smaller than 8-1/2" x 11" then stick or tape them to a full size sheet and add the surname and place at the top of the page. If you have documents that are larger, you can fold them so they will go into a note book, or you can make or buy a "pocket" sheet. These can be purchased from a K-Mart, Wal-Mart, or perhaps in the school supplies area of a local supermarket. The purchased pocket sheets are pre-punched for 3-holes and have a pocket where an over-sized folded document can be inserted.
If your pile includes original documents you may want to make photocopies of them, which would also allow for reducing the size, if necessary, to fit your notebooks. You can treat original photographs the same way make copies for the notebooks. The originals can then be stored with other documents or photos in a container kept in a dry place. (A good selection of acid-neutral storage boxes for extended safe storage of original documents and photographs are identified in AGLL's preservation catalog).
Once you have gone through one surname and separated by place, each sheet in a surname/place stack can now be numbered. You can arrange these sheets any way you want at this time, but any new sheets will be added at the back and continue the numbering. If the first stack you take on is the Johnson/Iowa stack, start numbering the sheets IA-1, IA-2, IA-3, IA-4, IA-5, and so on. Do the same for each stack of sheets for each place you have separated. When this is done you can place all of the sheets in a 3-ring binder. Use the sheet dividers to separate the sheets by states/places.
Any expression of wild and crazy celebration at this point is perfectly in order. You are permitted to take your shoes off, let your hair down, shout with glee, or hug and kiss any person who happens to be in the room. You are finished with the pile!
Retrieving Notes and Compiling Family Sheets
The next step of compiling a family sheet is the point where most genealogist compare the notes, evaluate the contradictions that always occur, and then make a decision about the dates, places, and events necessary to enter information about the family members. This process is sometimes lengthy and worrisome, and often leads to ideas where new research might be necessary. With a large collection of research notes, the process is even more complicated, and some means of indexing the information becomes critical.
With the notes and documents easily retrieved from the surname notebooks, a family sheet can be prepared more easily, but more importantly, a complete list of every sheet that was used to compile the family information can be cited.
The Importance of Genealogical Evidence
In fact, there are numerous instances in which professional genealogists have testified in court about genealogical evidence regarding an heir to property, or some matter in which genealogical evidence was in question. Genealogical evidence is no different from the evidence provided in a criminal case, where the prosecuting attorney must produce overwhelming evidence that the accused was indeed the criminal. However, the important fact about evidence is that everyone who reviews it must come to the same conclusion. Therefore, the pieces of evidence must be made available so that anyone can scrutinize the findings. If the same conclusion is reached, then it is indeed possible to make an assertion about "the son of..." without having a single document that actually states that fact.
Any reference to a person, however slight, should be included in the notes and documents collection. This means, for instance, that an obituary should be obtained even if the death certificate for this person has already been acquired. It also means than any other piece of evidence relating to that death should be gathered, e.g., survivors' memories, funeral programs, cemetery office records, tombstone inscriptions, stone mason records, insurance papers, social security records, and anything that may give clues about the survivors of the deceased. The more references collected, the more information that will be revealed about the ancestors or descendants of the person who died. Adding multiple references to a death or other event is the way we build a preponderance of evidence. This is the method in which a genealogist can prove something without a shadow of doubt being cast on the evidence. A complete list of references should accompany every genealogical presentation, whether the presentation is a few family group sheets or a thousand-page book.
Preparing a List for a Family Sheet
This latter method has merit if the family sheet is being prepared anyway, so why not simply list every reference that was used to compile the family information? Better yet, why not use the back side of the family sheet to do it? This is good record-keeping, because in compiling the family sheet every reference item from the documents file can be listed one at a time. Then, as new information is added, the new reference item can be added to the list as well.
Remember the suggestion was for every reference sheet to have a number now the importance of that page number is evident. But beyond the simple reference to the page, more information might be worthwhile having in the list. An example of how this system can be implemented is a family sheet designed to list the references. The sample of a Compiled Family Data Sheet on page 14 and 15 demonstrates how this method works. The front of the sheet is a standard group sheet for a family, giving the husband, wife, and children with their pertinent genealogical data. The back side of the sheet has a place to list every Reference Family Data Sheet that was used for that particular family.
Note that the first thing needed is to tell the genealogist which surname book the item came from, what section within the surname book, and what page number with that section. "Dollarhide/IN/3" indicates that the reference is in the Dollarhide surname book in the Indiana section, and within that section it is page 3.
There are several advantages in listing all references on the family sheet in this way. Not only does the list indicate every research item that was used to compile the family group, it provides a list that can be mailed to other genealogists showing what has been collected for that family. Genealogists who receive letters from other genealogists asking for "everything you have on the Brown family" can send the list of references first.
The list also tells a genealogist where to find records that been stored in more than one place. For example, records concerning Nancy Pierson before her marriage can be stored with the Pierson surname book. Records after her marriage to Jesse Dollarhide can be stored in the Dollarhide surname book. A copy need not be made for each book if the list indicates where each particular reference has been filed.
List References for One Person
On the back side of the Master Data Sheet is another form called a Research Log. This lists every Reference Family Data Sheet that mentions Mary Winslow. It is a similar listing to the one on the Compiled Family Data Sheet, and may repeat some of the same information. The advantage of this is that it enables you to locate each item for one person and then prepare the master vital statistics for that person. The individual list can be made for any person, not just ancestors.
With a well organized Notes and Documents file, particularly one with page numbers for every sheet of paper, you have several other options to create an index to the names appearing in it. We described one method of using the back of a family group sheet to show a list of references, giving the name of the surname book, place section, and page number where the full details are stored. The same sort of list can be prepared for individuals, using a Master Data Sheet and Research Log form that allows for listing every reference for one person.
An index of the names in your notes and documents paper database could be also be prepared using 3" x 5" cards, a rolodex file, or using a computer database program. The fact that your notes are well organized will give you several options to prepare an index if listing the sources on family sheets or individual sheets does not cover everyone in your paper database.
About the Author
Dollarhide has authored several genealogy books including three published by Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc. of Baltimore, Maryland:Managing a Genealogical Project; the Genealogy Starter Kit ; and with William Thorndale, the Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920. The Map Guide and Managing books are both in the "top-twenty" list of best-selling genealogy reference books.
On his own, he has designed numerous forms, maps, and charts for genealogists which are now published by AGLL, Inc. Since joining AGLL, he has helped thousands of beginning researchers on the World Wide Web though his renowned beginners guide to genealogy entitledSeven Steps to a Family Tree. His most recent books includeMap Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815 andBritish Origins of American Colonists, 1629-1775.
Last modified: February 12, 2007