Recording family history properly requires organisation and discipline
Ideas for recording your family history discoveries and documenting your data.
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"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.
your family history files
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
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.
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.
Commonly used filing systems for genealogists
Toolkit Top Tip
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
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 historianYou 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.