I was talking a while back with some fellow genealogists, and one mentioned that she was going to do a “do-over” with one of her lines. This is not the first time I have heard about genealogists doing this. It usually comes at a time when they hit a brick wall, become frustrated with what they have achieved, or when new information comes to light which makes them question all of their work.
I am not at the point that I would start-over completely, but I have been thinking that my sources getting away from me. I was writing a biography of one ancestor and in going through my file, I saw documents I had forgotten that I had. So I decided I needed to do something.
First I should explain that in my working life as a historian in a private research firm I do a lot of work using databases. We take the research we have done in archives, libraries and other repositories and organise them as a into a collection using specialised software, and provide the client with source information, dating, context and analysis in a database. The software used allows the client to identify documents which address specific issues, or include specific individuals, etc. All this to say, I am used to taking historical research and transforming it into a database, and to use the database to generate information, and organise it in order to write reports, etc.
In thinking of the multitude of documents and materials I have collected in the thirty-odd years of researching my family tree, I thought that perhaps I should treat these sources like I do with those at work. So this is how I have planned out my “inventory project.” I have decided to take stock of all of my documents, notes, books, etc which were collected over the years, and organise them in a database – take a complete inventory of all my stuff and see what I actually have.
Everyone organises their material differently, and everyone absorbs information in different ways. So what I am doing in terms of my database/inventory is suited to my needs specifically, and my experience of working with sources. Please take what I say as an overall idea, and adapt how you see fit.
The process all begins with the questions that you want your documents to answer, and what you need to know about the documents’ creation in order to evaluate their accuracy and information. I took these questions and developed an excel chart which asks the questions I think are key to my research and the documents, and gives me the flexibility to enter every document’s relevance to different aspects of the research.
The categories (columns) on the excel sheet were crafted to provide the basic source information, while also giving information on the subject, and the kind of information it gives. Below are the categories and an explanation of what purpose they serve, what is being asked and answered by the document.
This is a unique identification number I have assigned each document as it is being inventoried. For physical documents I have written this number in pencil in the upper right hand corner of the document. For documents that exist as digital, I change the file name to the document identification number. The document ID allows you to connect a document to the information you have created.
I decided when I started this process to classify the documents further by family line, using the first three letters of my grandparents’ family names, and followed by six digits.
For example: LEI-000001, and so on.
This is where you will enter the document’s title. This is the title that appears on the document itself. Some documents might not have formal titles, in which case you give it one. To distinguish a created title they should include some kind of symbol or case which you readily identify. I use square brackets for attributed titles.
Knowing what kind of document it is, is important in assessing its relative accuracy in terms of your research. Birth certificate, church baptism register or notice of birth in a newspaper – they all say the same thing, but were created under different circumstnces and for different purposes. The context is different. That is reflected in this column. The beauty of the excel program is that you can create a dropdown menu to standardize your typology. It makes life simpler.
This category reflects the date actually written on the document. If there is only a year, write that, if there is no date on the document write nd.
If you think you know when the document was created, then put that date here.
This is where you write out how you came about your assigned date. So if the date is deduced from when a person was known to have been born, did something at a certain date from another document – record that here. For example if you have a newspaper clipping for a wedding report, but somehow the clipping doesn’t mention when it was published, but you know when the couple were married, then state that.
Subject – Person of Interest
This is where you put in the name of the person that the document relates to. So if this is a baptismal register, write in the name of the child being baptised. I capitalise the family name and then write the first name.
For example – LEITCH Gillian
In this column you can use the name as it is usually spelt – how you have the person listed in your family tree. If the document is a census entry, you can just use the family name alone. This column will help you filter your database when you are looking for documents relating to a specific person.
Who wrote the document? If it is a parish register name the parish priest/minister, or state ‘parish priest,’ or ‘enumerator’ for the census, etc.
If this was a letter, memo or email, it had a destination and that is the name that goes here. If it is a census or a birth certificate then you can write ‘n/a.’
This column gives you a place to list everyone mentioned in a document. So for a baptism you should list the child, its parents, godparents, priest, etc – everyone mentioned in the baptism entry. For the census you should list the entire household including visitors and servants. List the names as they appear in the document – bad spelling included.
For documents that are essentially lists such as the census I limit myself to the family households and then say after they are listed – ‘not all mentions are coded.’ I then write a note in the Extra Notes why I did that.
Source of Information
This is where you put in the archival and collection information. If you grabbed the document off Ancestry include Ancestry in the source information, but don’t forget to add where ancestry obtained the documents. All of these databases online do provide source information.
Source information can include repository (such as Library and Archives Canada), a record group, file number, page number, date.
If you got the document as a part of a family collection, state it. So if there is a letter you inherited, then state the source – collection of X, date of letter, author and recipient.
Here you summarize what the document tells you – its significance. So if it tells you that someone was born a specific day – or that the godparents are actually also someone important, whatever is the most key about the document.
Does the document tie the subject to a specific place? If it does here is the place to say so. Because a lot of the families I have researched have moved around a fair bit, having a date connected to them and a geographic location is helpful.
This provides the researcher a place to say why the document was collected, the value it has or has not, and anything else significant about the documents.
Excel includes a number of features which allow you to sort and filter your database. This permits the information to be moved around – sorting by family, by date, by person of interest, etc. And as with most electronic documents I can use the find feature to find specific individuals or places as needed.
While this process is not necessarily a “do-over” it is still a lot of work. For me the act of inventorying my collection of documents gives me a better grasp of what I actually have; and conversely what I don’t have. Having this information at hand provides me with a better idea of what gaps I have to fill in my research going forward. I have also been able to cull duplicate documents. I clearly have gone to the same place twice – not uncommon. This has allowed me to organise my notes in a clear and concise manner.