Keeping records straight

How you keep your records becomes more important, the longer you study your family history and the more records you have.  Making your system too complex soon becomes overwhelming.  It begins to become too much of a chore and starts to make the likelihood of you bothering to record the sources of your information less and less.  I know this from experience.

When I first started my family history, there were no online sites to keep a record of your family trees, it was all notes in notebooks and handwritten family trees.  I was terrifically organized, but inexperienced, and so I had a book for research at the family records centres, a book for certificates I wanted to order, a book for noting down which indexes I had searched, a book for family trees, a book for notes taken when I saw a family member or went to a graveyard.  You get the picture.  I had so many notebooks, and so many places in which I needed to record information, or tick it off, that I soon got into a muddle.  One day I must go through all those early notebooks and make absolutely sure I have all the information in my central records and throw them away.  I’m almost sure I have, but I fear to miss one vital fact and it’s one of those roundtuit jobs… I never get around to it!  I must though, or my daughter, who has promised to look after the family archive when I’m gone, will hate me!

Nowadays I use Ancestry for my central family tree.  I have one control journal, and that’s where I note things, messages to myself about things to do, noting reference numbers for certificates etc.  As I transfer the notes, or discount them or order the certificates, I cross them off.  That means I can throw the control journal away once I have taken across everything in it.  Then for each family that I research, I maintain a book with each person in the family tree on a double page spread.  when I first started using this system I used to be very anal about putting the individual on the first page, the parents on spreads 2 and 3, the grandparents on spreads 4,5,6 and 7… but as time has gone on I have realised that numbering the pages and ensuring I always put a link to the next generation, it really doesn’t have to go that way.  It means that if I am working on one line for a family I can simply take that line forward and then work on the next.

The big advantage of having this book is that I can refer to it when I am away from home, and it becomes much easier to see the family tree with the additional detail.  I find the discipline of writing it down helps me to sort out the people in my head.  It also means that I have a record if a sun storm hits and our computers are all inoperable.  Or when the robots take over the world.  Imagine if the Ancestry computer program, which seems unable to distinguish Norfolk from Hertfordshire on occasions, took over.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

There are whole books written on using reference numbers and systems for ensuring you are dealing with the right person.  Some family tree programs will assign numbers for you.  I’m not going to advise you on that – different systems work for different people, and it is as individual as taste in food.  In absence of anything else, always assign a notional birthdate for an ancestor if you don’t know their dates, and if you have two people with the same name in the same time period, identify them somehow – by number, with an attribute, or a made-up nickname…you’ll be glad you did.  Try not to make my mistake and make everything too complicated to maintain.

In the end, the best advice is to bear in mind that if you are successful as a family historian, other people will need to read and understand your records.  So keep writing explanations where you pick up obscure pieces of information, for example.  Either your successor will be glad you did, or maybe you will, when you’ve forgotten who told you cousin Bob was a trick diver and used to jump off Southend Pier.


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