Finding ancestors and other relatives that's what genealogy is
all about, right? And there is tons of information out there on all of
them (even if some of them intentionally seem to have made it difficult
for others to track them down!). The trick is, once you've learned something
about an ancestor or relative, put that information into a readily-accessible,
"user-friendly" form that will help you proceed to more research.
Here are some "tips and tricks" on organizing your research. Although
these methods have been tried over many years of genealogical research,
it is important to realize that not all methods work for everyone. Please
think about how these ideas can help you in your research and organization.
If you aren't comfortable with a system, you won't use it consistently
and the whole purpose of using it in the first place is defeated before
you even begin. Think about your habits and preferences as you adopt the
methods that are appropriate for your purposes.
This system has been found to work best when all the pieces are combined
the proof files, surname files, the "portable" files, and computer
files. When putting together your system (or revising your present system),
please consider carefully before "skipping" any of these areas
I'll explain the reasons as I go along.
- Proof files. These are the originals (or master copies) of
all the information you accumulate. Examples include birth certificates,
marriage licenses, death certificates, photographs, copies of pages
from secondary sources, correspondence, and so forth. These documents
should never leave home!
- Surname files. These are your working copies of the proof files,
plus any notes on possible connections, ideas on which to follow up,
and other similar things. These may go to the library or courthouse
with you as needed.
- Portable files. These contain the master information on ALL
your ancestors and it goes with you all of the time. This should include
copies of all your pedigree charts, family group sheets on all direct
(or blood line) ancestors, and other quick-reference aids.
- Computer files. These files include details and source information
on all of the individuals you are researching not just blood
relations, but spouses, children, ancestors of in-laws, and other relatives.
It may even include "possible" relations. This does not replace any
of the other four files identified above! There are places you cannot
take your computer (even a laptop). The proof files are the actual documents
or copies. The surname files contain hard copies of the information
in the proof files (more detail than you can put in the computer
and who would want to key in everything you find anyway?) The computer
does, however, provide a valuable resource for sharing information,
and for organizing data. It's helpful in determining relationships
the connections can be made one by one and the computer will then show
a graphic representation of the relationships. It's also extremely helpful
to be able to print out a family group sheet or pedigree chart (or better
yet, a GEDCOM file) to share with a relative (or possible relative)
As you can see, each of these types of files has its own function; and
used together they will keep your data in accessible, usable form!
Before beginning on the types of files, there are two overall bits of
preparation you need to do:
- Prepare a pedigree chart (probably a "cascading" pedigree chart) showing
all known ancestors. It is recommended you start with your children,
so that you and your spouse do not have the same identification numbers
for different ancestors.
- Number the ancestors according to the "ahnentafel" numbering system.
The ahnentafel system, by its nature, provides a unique number for each
individual ancestor, while allowing you to easily see where there are
gaps in your information by seeing which numbers you have not assigned.
(The first individual I recommend your children as a group
is assigned #1. The father of each individual is double the child's
number, and the mother is one more than the father. So the father of
person #1 is #2, and the mother of person #1 is #3.)
Once these tasks are completed, you're ready to begin organizing your
Type I Proof Files
The key to keeping your Proof Files organized is having a system for identifying
each family group to keep the data separate but accessible. Keep these files
by surname (for marriage records or information pertaining to the wife,
try to keep two copies one with her father's family, one with her
husband). If you find that a particular file is becoming too cramped, separate
them by generation, labeling each file with the identification numbers of
the parents (the ahnentafel numbers assigned above).
Also this file includes the abstracts of censuses, deeds, wills, and
so forth that you have made. You should keep copies of the same documents
in your Surname File.
Take care of your original proofs. Use good preservation methods for
old documents and photos; handle them carefully; use acid-free paper on
everything possible. Make copies of whatever material you think you may
need to take along when researching. DO NOT take along your originals!
You've heard people say, "I know where it came from, I can always request
another copy." But the horror stories pop up frequently of courthouses
that have lost all the records from a particular period or worse,
a fire has destroyed everything; or laws change and those documents are
no longer available to the public or for genealogical research! So even
if you know where a document came from, and you have all of the information,
you may not be able to get another copy. Keep your originals safe!
Type II Surname Files
The Surname Files are your working files. These are arranged by surname
so that you can take this file with you when you are researching a particular
name. These files should each contain as much of the following as you have
available for each surname:
- an ancestral time line to ensure that your generations overlap
properly, and to see at a glance which ancestors were living at any
- pedigree charts for the surname; and
- a correspondence log and copies of correspondence.
Part II (beginning with the most recent generation in the front):
- a family group sheet with enough pages to include all children;
- a research record where have you checked and what have you
found, so far;
- copies of material from Proof File; and
- generation dividers/notes.
These, then, are the files you take along to do your research, or in
which you make notes of "things to do" or possible connections. Your originals
are protected, but you have a handy reference available with all the detail
on a given family.
Type III Portable Files
When you are going to do research, you will want to take along your Surname
Files for the family or families you're planning to work on. But what
if you find someone else for whom you don't have a file with you? You
may start out intending to research only one particular line, but discover
that it seems like that family is "hiding" or another family pops
up where you weren't expecting to find them! Without your Portable File,
you may end up with files of research on individuals to whom you are not
related! The names and places may be right, but the family turns out to
be cousins or sometimes not related to you at all!
The purpose of the Portable File is to enable you to take enough information
with you to be sure that the family you've found is one you're looking
for. It should include your pedigree charts, a location directory (so
that you can double-check to see if you have ancestors in a particular
town, county, or state for which you've found vital records), alphabetical
listings of surnames of interest, family group sheets, and other notes.
The family group sheets should contain the basic information (birth,
marriage, death, burial) with dates and places. It's easier if everything
is cross-referenced by both surnames (husband and wife), so if you run
across information on a Susie BEEDLEBUB, you don't have to remember who
she married to find her she's right there in the Bs, along with
all her BEEDLEBUB ancestors.
Type IV Computer Files
It seems everyone is getting on the bandwagon to do everything on the computer.
I'm no exception! I don't write if I don't have to. Here are some of the
advantages and capabilities of recording your genealogy on the computer:
First, the Good News!
Now, a few cautions I'd like to point out about genealogy on the computer.
- There are computer programs for every budget, from Brother's Keeper
which is available on most bulletin boards, to Personal Ancestral File
(from the LDS) for about $35, to Roots IV for several hundred dollars.
Some programs will do everything but the research for you, so you just
need to decide what you want. Key things to watch for include the abilities
- expand to accommodate your family (we thought a few hundred would
be more than enough we're up to over 10,000 individuals in
our database, and it continues growing nearly every day!); and
- import and export GEDCOM files, which will make your life much
more pleasant when you wish to upgrade to another program, share
information with a friend or relative, or submit information to
the LDS for their database.
- Most computer programs will print various reports and charts, some
of which are absolutely gorgeous and others of which are simply functional.
This capability will save you time in preparing to exchange with others
who do not have computer capabilities however, be sure to check
the print quality and remember that the output from some printers will
fade over time. You want to be sure others will be able to read it next
year (sometimes fading print is worse than none at all).
- Remember that when you are taking information from documents to put
into your computer program, you need to organize it and reference the
sources for EVERYTHING! On paper documents, the reader can often see
the source indicated (or know that it's a photocopy of a birth certificate).
In your computer program, you must spell that out so later you will
know quickly from where the information came.
- Think about your descendants. You get very excited when you find something
your ancestors wrote throw a little crumb to your descendants
by leaving them written genealogical records of some sort.
- Will anyone be able to read your computer files in 50 years if they
find the disks (or even the computer) in the attic? If your files don't
go directly to someone who protects them and maintains them, will they
be of any use later on (or will anyone even know they're there).
- When you print your data, what kind of printer, ink and paper are
you using? A dot matrix printer ink fades in just a few months
it will be totally worthless in a few years. Laser printers are better,
but are you using acid-free paper?
By using this "four-pronged" approach to organizing your records, you
will have the data you need, where you need it, when you need it. Establish
a sequence of handling new data for example, update your Portable
File, then Computer File, then Surname File, then file appropriate records
in the Proof File. Stay with this system, and all your records will stay
in sync, making them more valuable to you, and allowing you to use your
limited genealogy research time more efficiently!