14 July 2017

Organize Your Genealogy Research By Choosing Your Style

Develop and stick to your own style and naming conventions to achieve better organization.

When my husband and I were planning our Italian honeymoon in 2003, my imagination ran wild.

What if I find an old house with my maiden name on it? What if I meet a distant relative who looks like me?

These thoughts propelled me into the obsessive hobby of genealogy.

Early disarray

My first discovery was the Ellis Island website where I found ship manifests for my two grandfathers.

I found other people on other manifests who may or may not be relatives. I began filling a notebook with facts on potential relatives—pages and pages of scribbled, disconnected information.

Taming the chaos

Then I graduated to family tree software and learned some of the recommended conventions. For example, when recording dates:
  • dd Mon yyyy, as in 24 Sep 1959 or 01 Jan 1856, is a versatile format that anyone can understand. If I told someone in England that my brother's birthday is 6/11/1955, they would read November 6, not June 11.
  • When estimating a date you can use Abt. (about), Bef. (before), Aft. (after), Bet. (between). For example, my great great grandfather was still alive at the end of 1860, but he was dead when his grandchild was born on 12 Mar 1870. To record what I know, I've listed his death date as Bet. 1861–12 Mar 1870.
  • If I don't know someone's birth year, but I know when one of their children was born, I use a placeholder date. This helps me see the general time in which they lived. I subtract 25 from their oldest child's birth year (e.g. 1800 minus 25) and record their birth year as Abt. 1775.

This is crucial in a tree like mine where about 10,000 Italians have a combination of what seems like 10 names.

I've also developed my own format for annotating documents such as census forms and ship manifests. For example, in my family tree software I will put a note on a census sheet and include the following:

  • the line numbers for this family
  • City, County, State 1920 census
  • enumeration district #, supervisors district #, ward of city #, block #, sheet #
  • image 3 of 300 (if found in an online collection)
  • a link to the original document on ancestry.com, familysearch.org. antenati.san.beniculturali.it. etc.

This amount of detail allows anyone to verify my facts and see the document for themselves.

Owning the facts

When I first subscribed to ancestry.com, I knew I wanted to have every important document stored on my computer. So I download everything I find.

Almost from the start, I chose my style—how to name the files and where to keep them. I name the files LastnameFirstnameYear.jpg, in general. If it's a census form, it's named for the head of household. If it's a two-page ship manifest, the file names end in -p1.jpg and -p2.jpg. The folder names are simple and clear.

A consistent file-naming style leaves no room for error.
A consistent file-naming style leaves no room for error.

This consistency became second nature. It helps me spot what I'm looking for in no time.

Finally, my document tracker spreadsheet is my ongoing catalogue of every document I have. This spreadsheet tells me at a glance what I have and what I still need to find for any given person.

If genealogy is your obsession, you know how easy it is to go wild gathering facts, photos and documents. Take the time to develop your style.

Your consistency will pay rich dividends.

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