Genealogy is all about Organization
When my sisters, MomMay and I first started building our digital family tree, we were so excited to be able to utilize the software MomMay had just purchased that we did not even test the water, we just dived right in! We entered the data we had available from the photocopied or handwritten tree information that had been handed down without a thought to preserving the source document reference. Oops!
After some twenty years or so of confirming (or refuting) the data from those original sources, I faced the same issue so many beginning family historians do – Where, oh where did I find that information? To my credit (patting self on back) I did go back and attempt to create source references where possible and have since attempted to be truly diligent in keeping track of my sources.
My primary tree application now is Ancestry.com as is true for so many of today’s genealogy buffs. The ease of locating obscure documents, the ability to view the scanned originals from hundreds of years past, the ready ability to document your source provides an incredible benefit for us. So, too, does the ready access to other researchers’ work.
One of my personal dislikes is finding my own, personal research couched in my own words reflected in some other person’s tree without accreditation to me. Wow. That is simply one of the basic No-No’s in research in any theatre of activity. Please always be sure to show your source, be it the family tree you located via a search engine, a story told to you by a family member or other person, a picture shared by social media, or similar finds. It only takes a minute to highlight and copy/paste the internet source from your browser and enter it at the foot of your notes or “Story” by typing in SOURCE: www.whatever.com or to indicate: SOURCE: email from … or documents provided by…
Many times, however, you may spend hours or days seeking information and locating many bits of information that are potentially related to your own family. For these myriad pieces of information it is equally as critical that you copy or scan as found, identify your source location for your own references and possible publication purposes, and ORGANIZE the data so that you may find it later and add to the proper profile of a relative. My own computer files contain a general folder entitled Genealogy, within which are many individual folders bearing the surname of the branch, such as “Joslin” or “Carroll”. Within these folders I maintain subfolders bearing the full name and, hopefully, indicator of life span (example: folder JOSLIN, subfolder WILLIAM HENRY – 1837-1921; or subfolder Charlemagne – Joslin Lineage Research.)
In some cases the surname may be one you just located and with which you are unfamiliar. It most likely came into your realm of knowledge through finding a marriage for one of your female ancestors. Many folks like to just keep the bloodline profiles in their trees. As mentioned before, I enjoy the hunt and the facts and stories located about my ancestors help to bring that person’s lifestyle, vocation, peculiarities, successes and heartbreaks to the forefront. This is how I get to know those ancestors. For my own purposes, I generally maintain a subfolder within the familiar surname folder that identifies the original link to that new surname. (Example: JOSLIN, subfolder Hetty and Samuel Pope Maloy.) This provides me the initial link to the new surname folder that I will then create, for the example here MALOY. In this new Surname folder, I can then begin to build the files for Hetty Joslin and husband Samuel Pope Maloy’s children and grandchildren.
The surname folders also provide a space to hold the materials provided by other researchers that may enrich your own knowledge. Again, my JOSLIN folder contains a subfolder for Carol Treadway – Edith Wessler JOSLIN Research.
Similarly, it is important to organize your photographs. I usually drop the pictures into the subfolders being careful to identify as fully as possible Full Name, d. (date) and b. (date), etc.. Along with these photographs are scans of original documents to which I’ve fallen heir or those scans others have provided to me. If provided by another researcher, be sure to give them a nod when you use those scans. Show their name and when and how they provided the information. That will assist you in going back to verify your own information, it shows the proper respect to your partners in research and it permits other researchers to independently test the data to determine its applicability to their own family members’ profiles.
Since so many family members find their eternal rest in a common cemetery, I’ve found it most expeditious to have a single folder for CEMETERIES, with photos that I utilize in the family tree identified by name of cemetery and location, such as: Greenlawn Cemetery - Bakersfield, Kern County, California and Greenlawn Cemetery or South Side Cemetery - Drumright, Creek County, OK. The actual headstone photographs I drop into the appropriate subfolder identified for the family member. Here it is critical to remind you that those headstones may not actually be accurate. The spellings of the names, dates of birth and death, although carved in stone, may not be right. Be sure to corroborate the data through other sources if at all possible.
That brings up another valuable source of information: those subfolders! Don’t forget to check back from time to time to see exactly what you’ve got stored away in those little computer files. Your greatest source may be – YOU. I have a huge section of file storage devoted to my genealogy research and I like to check back to see what tidbits I’ve stored away. I may have streams of shared data that appeared in RootsWeb, for instance, where researchers have shared their own findings and discussed the pros and cons of accepting the data as information. Remember, data is merely an accumulation of raw facts, dates, names and so forth. Information is that data after it is verified, organized and assimilated.
Finally, I like to print out certain pieces of found research and use the printed page as a mark-up to add leaves to my branches on my family tree. I keep hard copy folders similar to my digital file folders with such printed copies filed by Surname and then by Individual Given Name. This is an important step for critical pieces of information. More than once, my computer has crashed during these twenty or more years of digital research. All my tree data was not lost because I had saved on disk from time to time a backup copy and was able to restore a large portion of my original work. Thankfully, I also had those hard copy printouts to work from. I had also printed and begun filing a three-ring binder of my tree organized by surname, and family groups then individual profile pages with accompanying stories, photos, etc. From these hard copy sources I was able to bring my tree back up to near original status. Undoubtedly, some of the information may have been lost because I failed to backup routinely. That is an essential element of organization – multiple copies of your hard-earned tree information.
Genealogy has enriched my life. I know far more about history than I ever learned in school. Having the dates of historic events etched into my mind by virtue of having linked an ancestor to the war, the battle, the plague or memorable act of sacrifice or success helps me to sort of relive that portion of history. So many times I’ve discovered parallels never suspected or imagined where different branches of my family happened to fight side by side in historic battles or traveled the same migratory route via separate wagon trains only to find their descendants met and joined the paternal and maternal lines in yet another unexpected way.
That is my next challenge: how to create a proper timeline that tracks my ancestors’ paths and show the dates and places where they shared that place in time. So far, I’ve experimented with Excel but found it rather overwhelming with more than 11,700 individuals now existing on my tree. Thus far those links are melded in my mind as a name, an historic place or event that brings to mind a similar link to another ancestor. In this case, I attempt to document as carefully as possible through a written document, carefully documenting all sources that contribute to the accuracy of my assumptions.
The research into the descendants of our bloodline ancestors’ siblings is termed Descendant Genealogic Research. Some perform this research in a highly organized fashion, taking one brother or sister of their GGG-Grandfather and documenting first their marriage or each of their multiple marriages and then adding each child born to them with that spouse. A truly organized researcher will systemically take each person, adding every fact to be found about them before moving on to the next child, then grandchild and so forth. I do not have the luxury of time to do this in every case nor is it my preferred method. I am led more by my heart and that indescribable psychic link I believe is formed when we reach back in time to “meet” our ancestors. I follow my heart and that “voice” that tells me “Here is a story!” By dabbling into sibling research other sources are made available to me. Their offspring may have photos, stories, documents that were handed down only to that brother or sister and remain in the hands of their descendants. Here again, each piece of data is stored with the source carefully documented for future reference.
It is my hope that these tips on organization can be of assistance to you in your own research and that your research will help you to learn more about yourself by learning about your ancestors, building a picture in your mind of how they looked, what obstacles they surmounted, certain aspects of their personality or attitudes that may have been handed down through the genes to you or your children. Most of all, I hope you are inspired to try your hand at becoming your family’s historian. Enjoy!