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Recording family history properly requires organisation and discipline

Ideas for recording your family history discoveries and documenting your data.


How to organise your family history discoveries

"Tracing my family tree means I have to be organised." Repeat this phrase as many times as necessary until you mean it! If you're determind to start tracing a family tree, you'll need to develop an organised system of record keeping so your genealogical discoveries will be not only safely stored but also easily retrievable. This is often a bit of an after-thought, because there are so many distractions when you first set off on your ancestral trail.

A messy pile of genealogy data
How NOT to organise
your family history files
Far more interesting is the hunt through dusty archives or online research sites to find out if you are descended from one of Ireland's great families or carrying out detective work to prove (or disprove) a much-told family tale.

It's tempting to just dive in but bear in mind that tracing your family tree involves collecting huge amounts of genealogy documents and papers. Quite apart from the information you are likely to forget if you try to store too much of it your head, if you don't start to organise this data, you will find yourself disappearing beneath piles of photocopies, certificates, maps and hastily scrawled notes.

Once you have decided to crawl from under this mess and to get your genealogy data into a more manageable state, it's time for a filing system. Whether you'd do better documenting family history data in paper format or by using one of the latest family tree programs is something only you can decide. Be honest with yourself. If you could genuinely be described as a meticulous person, you will probably cope with recording your family history on paper, if that's what you'd prefer. If not, you might be better off researching the best genealogy software.



Recording family history: Paper vs computer


There is no law that says you have to use dedicated family history programs. Certainly, recording family history onto a computer can be a good idea, but hi-tech solutions are not essential, especially when you first start tracing family trees. Nor is there a law which says owners of genealogy software must every single feature on it. You are in charge, and you can suit yourself.

files on computer screen My own preference is to keep detailed paper records, including handwritten biographical outlines for each ancestor, family group records and pedigree charts, in large ring binders or box files. I then transfer to computer only the core genealogy data needed to draw up my tree.

Even though I am completely comfortable working with a computer, this is how I choose to keep my genealogy files. But I know other family historians who use every nook and cranny of their family tree programs and thoroughly enjoy their almost paperless research. So there is no hard and fast rule. It is entirely up to you.

If you want to computerise your records, do a bit of research to find the best family tree software options and how each might suit you.

fan of forms Paper charts and forms for recording family history

You don't have to design your own forms for documenting family history data. There are already a good number of standardised charts used by the millions of people – both amateurs and professionals – tracing family trees across the world. A selection of these charts and forms can be downloaded, free of charge, and printed off using the link below.

Use these free forms for recording your family history.


Commonly used filing systems for genealogists

Toolkit Top Tip


Be organised when recording family history 'on location', too.

It isn't always permissible or convenient to use a laptop when researching away from home so it's worth investing in a couple of notebooks. An A4 or A5 notebook is handy for recording notes in an archive or library, but A6 can be more convenient and less bulky when stumbling around uneven graveyards or visiting museums.

Dedicate these books to your genealogy research and take them with you whenever you go on an ancestor hunt.

If you record all your notes in such books, you'll always be able to relocate important snippets or chunks of information.

Whether or not you use a computer to store most of your ancestral data, you will find that tracing a family tree requires you to use paper or cardboard files. Trouble is, there is no single paper filing system that works best for everyone. The only agreement seems to be that original genealogy documents – birth, marriage and death certificates, legal and personal letters, bibles, diaries, newspaper cuttings etc – should be kept separate from other papers in acid-free storage files or archive boxes.

Never let these leave your home!

Apart from original documents and official memorabilia, paper piles need to be sorted and transferred to standard office-quality folders, notebooks, binders and boxes. You need to determine which of these common systems for recording family history you will use:

Family Line: All records are kept together for one ancestral line ie the family line of one grandparent. This is then subdivided into generations or arranged according to the birth dates of individuals.

Surname: All papers relating to a particular surname are filed together, subdivided into location (if they didn't all live in the same place), birth dates of individuals, record type (birth, census etc) or alphabetically. The latter method of recording family history may be problematic for Irish ancestors because of the traditional naming pattern which sees the same names repeated over and over in each new generation.

Event: All data relating to specific events (ie birth, census, wills etc) are filed together. This system can be subdivided into location, date, surname or family line.


The way I store my genealogy data


When tracing my family trees, my preference is for the Family Line method, although I acknowledge it is not perfect. I have a large, heavy duty ring-binder for each of my grandparent's surnames. My Tierneys are in a green binder. My Doyles are in a blue binder. And so on.

files of genealogy data
In each binder I keep all my biographical outline forms subdivided into generations (my generation is no. 1; my parents' is no. 2 etc). Each generation is subdivided according to family group. I keep Family Record Group forms with one of the parent's of each group and each individual's biographical outline goes into a holed plastic wallet.


box of Irish family history records In addition to the ring binders, I have a colour co-ordinated filing box for each family line.
In this I keep peripheral genealogy data ie bulkier items relevant to individuals or families, local history booklets or info copied from old trade directories, maps, print outs from census returns etc. Each of these boxes also stores a large brown envelope where I can safely deposit data or notes until I get around to recording them properly per individual or family group.

The biggest problem with this system is that each of my binders and boxes is now so heavy it is no longer portable. When I am visiting an archive I have to carefully plan my trip to ensure I have the most relevant records with me according to what I intend to reseach on that occasion.


Easy retrieval makes a happy family historian

You may have to experiment before you find a system of documenting your family history data that suits you. If, as is recommended, you start tracing your family tree with just one family line, you can test-run just one method of storing and recording your genealogy documents before committing to it. You could then try out another system when you research another family line.

For now, just make a decision to use a system - any system, provided it is organised - that you think will work for you and will allow you to readily find information when you need it.



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