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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Why Must We Have Standards?
by Rhonda R. McClure

August 22, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

As I write this I am attending the Federation of Genealogical Societies' annual conference. Just like all the other conferences I have been fortunate enough to attend, this one offered ways for genealogists from all over to converse and converse they did! Hearing how others research or use their genealogical software often opens up my own mind to possibilities I had not previously considered.

I was happy to see that this conference was one of the most diverse I have seen in some time. That means that even more people will have a lot of information available to them as future generations become interested in genealogy. As more and more people become interested in genealogy and as online research become more popular, I begin to think about standards.

Standards cross all boundaries.


If you visit the National Genealogical Society's Web site, you will see that they have a number of proclamations that deal with standards. Genealogy has had standards for many years. Some of these standards have to do with methodology while others have to do with how we record the information and still others have to do with the citing sources.

Many of us began researching our family history before the Internet was available. We learned some of these standards from those who introduced us to the hobby or from those we came in contact with at the library or through a society. Today, though, many researchers were introduced to genealogy through the Internet and didn't get a chance to learn about why standards are necessary.

One of the problems with being introduced to the hobby online is that often people who are helping newcomers are themselves new. Unfortunately this means that traditional standards are being overlooked or are simply unknown by those conversing and sharing on the Internet and publishing their research to a Web site. While I do not wish to discourage researchers from working together, I fear that if we do not try to return to those standards, we will find that the information we share online can't be trusted. If this happens, it will make it almost impossible to use the Internet as a research tool

Let me stress that I find the Internet one of the most useful tools in my own research, but I understand the limitations of that tool and I make it a point to augment my research on the Internet with research in more traditional resources. Also, I make it a point to follow the standards in genealogical research that I was taught when I was first introduced to genealogy.

Dates Standardized

When you are recording dates in genealogy it is important to remember that you are recording information from many different generations and countries. The standard established in genealogy for the recording of dates in genealogy is 22 Aug 2002. This format is used on family group sheets and pedigree charts and most genealogy programs default to this format. While Family Tree Maker defaults to the date August 22, 2002, you can change this to the standard through the Preferences section of the File menu.

The reason that the dates are formatted in such a manner is to prevent misunderstanding. When we simply rely on numerals in dates, such as 8/6/02, there are just too many questions. The biggest question asked is what year is this? When we write dates in this way as we address letters or date checks, we are thinking in terms of this year. However, when working with genealogical information, there are a number of centuries, and you must ask yourself which one such a date refers to.

Another problem with our sample date 8/6/02 is in determining between the month and the day. In some European countries, when a date is recorded in such a way, it is actually the second numeral that represents the month. So the question a researcher must now ask is whether the date refers to the 6th of August or the 8th of June?

While some journals do require the dates completely spelled out, usually you will find that if you adhere to the DD-MM-YYYY standard that there will be no questions when it comes to other researchers reading your information.

Places and Sources

Places should always be recorded from the smallest to the largest known division. In the United States, this would look like Boston, Suffolk Co., Massachusetts. Notice how the county has been included, as well as the abbreviation for "county." You will also want to spell out the states. Many researchers today have gone to relying on the postal abbreviations, but this is a mistake for much the same reason as the dates cannot be all numerals. Those who do not live in the United States do not recognize the abbreviation NE as Nebraska, instead it is most often misconstrued as New England.

When you know only the county and state or the shire and country, it is a good idea to identify the first term of the place as such. For example, instead of Suffolk, Massachusetts, you would want to record the place name as Suffolk County, Massachusetts. Recording your place names in such a fashion will prevent those finding your work from being confused or from wasting time looking in states or localities that you were not even talking about.

Sources are the most misunderstood of all. Often new researchers don't see the purpose of recording sources and they sometimes consider the practice to be a waste of research time. In reality though, if you begin to cite your sources from the beginning you will find that you have more time to research your tree because you are no longer duplicating past research.

The best resource I have found for the recording of sources in my genealogical research is Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian. This book not only offers a table full of examples of both footnote and bibliographic standards, but also offers insight into the analysis of the resources we are using. Most of the samples used have come from footnote and bibliographic standards established in other fields, however there are a few records unique to genealogical research and it is nice to have those samples from which to work.

In Conclusion

Standards are not intended to make the tracing of your family history more difficult. In fact adhering to standards will make your research easier. For example, you'll be able to converse with individuals without causing confusion with the dates you share and you won't have to wonder which county you need to look up when you return to a particular family line. Finally, by citing sources you (or someone you share your research with) will be able to find a record or return to a source much more easily.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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