Jill Ball’s recent hangout on air entitled Let’s get organised caused me pause and think. The question of how to organise the physical and digital ‘stuff’ we accumulate during genealogical research is a common one that elicits a wide variety of responses. This discussion revolved mainly around digital files.
The panellists broadly follow two patterns of file organisation, person oriented and source oriented. Person oriented systems typically arrange files in folders for surnames and individuals. Source oriented systems typically arrange files in folders for each source type. Some people also have place and project folders.
Retrieval strategies include using file naming conventions, tagging, assignment of unique file ids, indexes and spreadsheets. Panellists use Family Historian, Custodian, Evernote, Excel and coggle.it to help them keep track of the ‘stuff’.
In Provenance of a Personal Collection – Archival Accession, Arrangement and Description, I advocated recording source information in a hierarchical archival style catalogue. Archival catalogues typically arrange source items by the provenance and context of their creation and use, which is reflected in multiple levels of logical organisation. Storage is not necessarily the same as logical organisation.
Are Hierarchies Hard?
Genealogists create family trees. A family tree is a hierarchical branching structure where layers represent generations of ancestors. So, genealogists would readily adopt a source hierarchy, wouldn’t they? The discussion made it pretty plain that is not the case.
Jill advocates a flat digital file structure. Among the panellists who use a hierarchy of physical or digital folders, the number of levels is restricted to no more than 2 or 3.
Why do people find hierarchies difficult?
Navigation through hierarchy levels is hard to get your head around. I have been looking for a tool that helps means me draw hierarchical trees and visualise my catalogue structure. Thanks to Alex Daws’ suggestion I tried the mind mapping tool, coggle.it. My genealogical ‘stuff’ falls into the categories depicted:
For the interactive version follow this link:https://coggle.it/diagram/550aa664a7d032c23734a105/7e12c7b8433ffe43f86b5994f61abf9977f826ac312616349825bbda313db27a
I have included a selection of top level categories and expanded a few of them. On the right are the things I acquired from family and collaborators, and my personal documents. On the left are the things acquired from physical and digital archives.
The personal collections are organised by their provenance, the person from whom the items came. This visual representation makes it easy for me to see I have omitted a helpful relative, Pat (how ungrateful am I!). I have expanded the part Raymond’s collection which I discussed in Provenance of a Personal Collection. The sub-categories reflect the use (e.g. probate) and history (e.g. belonged to Winnie) of the items.
Complete collections can be organised without taking account of possible future additions. The branches colour coded in yellow are complete. Raymond and Mabel are deceased, and personal study projects relate to courses completed.
The personal collection labelled Sue is my own. It includes collections that were created by my own life, the types of things discussed in Fresh Starts, my genealogy business records named Family Folk, and the results of my research such as blog posts. The category named Genealogical Research Collection is my personal sin bin. It’s arrangement reflects my early attempts to organise things, and indirectly documents my development as a researcher. Rather than rearrange things I have documented the existing arrangements.
Digital and Physical Archives
The left side of the source tree depicts my understanding of the arrangement of things I accessed through archives. I have expanded the top levels for just one record, the marriage of Joseph Wilson and Elizabeth Wilson at Claverley in 1808, that I discussed in Three Wilson-Wilson marriages and the Family History Library Experience.
The original marriage register is held by Shropshire Archives and the archive catalogue entry includes the hierarchy that shows how the marriage register fits into the archive’s collections:
Notice that the top level is missing from the archival catalogue. Parishes are collected together in a group denoted by P or XP, but there is no catalogue entry for this group. Many archive catalogues could be made more user friendly by the inclusion of top level groups and a visual interface. This catalogue entry also refers to the microfiche copy of the registers.
I have followed the archive catalogue in my source tree, but added in the missing parish level and separated out the microfiche version. The Family History Library transcript and microfilm are arranged by call number and film number, a peculiarity of that institution.
Digital archives typically consist of an index or database that may reference a collection of digital images. Database entries are accessed via search functions. The arrangement of digital image collection is similar, but not identical, to the arrangement of physical archive in this case. Some digital image collections differ substantially from their physical counterparts.
In addition to the original, there are 6 different versions of the marriage record. They were derived from the original either directly or indirectly via several different copying processes, but that is hard to show on my source tree.
Citations and Source Identification
Traditionally many academic disciplines cited published and unpublished works in the form of a bibliographic citation, but only included the data they collected in summary form. In many disciplines it is now recognised that the academic paper alone is no longer sufficient and the underlying data also needs to be shared. How to Cite Datasets and Link to Publications explores the issues and makes proposals for scientific data sets. Citing genealogical sources is more similar to citing scientific data than to citing finished works.
Genealogists typically want to pin point a single record or piece of data within a data set. For the marriage example the following locate the record within source items:
|Original||page & record number|
|Microfiche||counted row and column numbers, record number|
|Transcript||page number, record number|
|Microfilm||Item number, counted image number, record number|
|Digital image||browsing breadcrumb, image number|
|Database entries||search terms|
Genealogists need to know exactly which source item was used, because they differ in accuracy and reliability. My source tree distinguishes between the 7 source items, but does not make the relationships between them clear. Here is how I think each was derived:
Copying and processing potentially produces errors, so genealogists need to check against originals if possible. In the marriage example, I used the FamilySearch database to find the transcript and then checked the transcript against the microfiche copy of the original, because they were available at the time. Now I would use the high quality digital image that has since been published. The archive quite rightly restricts access to the original so that it is preserved.
The complicated-looking citations in Evidence Explained identify the source, the equivalent of my source tree. Multi-level citations, indicated by “citing”, give the relationships between derived versions and the original.
I have tackled some quite complex ideas in this post. I hope find some worth considering as your genealogy organisation systems develop. As Julie Goucher said, there is no one size fits all.
I thank Jill and all the panellists for challenging my assumptions, sharing their frustrations and confusion, and openly debating the issues. Conversations like this are valuable contributions that genealogy vendors and software developers need to hear. As a member of FHISO, I am listening.
© Sue Adams 2015
Around New Year it is traditional to take stock and make resolutions. The findmypast Start Your Family Tree Week and GeneaBloggers Genealogy Do-over are current manifestations. There is no real reason to start a fresh phase at New Year. Dear Myrtle considered Starting Over back in June 2014, because she wanted to create better source citations and bring together all of her information in one place. Genealogical research is iterative, so ideally, each phase builds on knowledge previously gained. Unless your previous work is in a very bad state, I suggest a re-appraisal with some blunt honesty rather than starting from scratch. You probably did do some good research, and learning to recognise that is important.
It has often been repeated that you should work from the known. In the excitement of early discoveries you likely skipped over recent generations and dived in with grandparents or great-grandparents. Stop a moment. Who is the person you know the most about and have the most documents for? That person is you.
Start with yourself
How well have you documented your own life? Yes, you know all about it, you were there after all. That gives you a huge advantage as you know why documents were created, and the procedures involved. That understanding brings insights that would be much harder to come by using older documents from previous generations. Even if you have been researching your family for years, this is an exercise worth undertaking.
How many documents about yourself can you produce right now? My UK-centric list is as follows:
Identity & membership:
- driving licence
- birth certificate
- national health insurance card
- European health insurance card
- Library cards & readers tickets
- membership cards
- school reports
- school yearbooks
- academic qualifications, certificates, transcripts
- Vehicle registration certificate
- Vehicle excise duty disc (known as road tax)
- MOT certificate (Ministry of Transport test of vehicle roadworthiness)
- insurance cover note & insurance terms
- house deeds, mortgage documents, or tenancy agreement
- utility bills & contracts
- TV license
- bank account statements
- credit card statements
- invoices & receipts
- credit & debit cards
- store loyalty cards & discount cards
- cheque book
- shopping lists
- letters, birthday & Christmas cards, postcards
- baptism certificate
You will likely easily find important or current documents that serve to identify you, or demonstrate rights and assets (e.g. passport, driving license, current bills). What about the other stuff? Where are you on the spectrum between minimalist and hoarder?
Think like an archivist
Knowing what you have and where it came from is a vital first research step. A list of what you have, like mine is a starting point. Your own personal documents have an impeccable provenance – they were created because of your interactions with the world. But only you know about that context, so add some description to you list. Fill in the blanks that would really help a future researcher. For example, who was the Aunty Freda who sent you that holiday postcard depicting an elephant? For some more guidance on archival concepts take a look at Provenance of a Personal Collection – Archival Accession, Arrangement and Description.
Go Slow, a Little Bit at a Time
Note that I have not yet done any analysis of what the documents contain, made any plans to seek more information, created source citations, or come to any conclusions. I have just taken stock of what documents I have that are about me.
I won’t describe every document at once, just a few at a time. Once I have recorded all that I know about a document, I will have the basis for a source citation. I certainly am not going to commit to a particular citation style, because I have several different audiences who have different understandings and expectations. Gradually, my personal archive will grow along with an archival-style catalogue. I plan to not need a future do-over!
© Sue Adams 2014
A century ago, on 6 November 1914, Richard Preece, the headmaster of Hitcham School wrote in the school log:
“19 recruits started off from the school gate to join the 5th Suffolk Regiment at Bury St Edmunds. They went away in three motors. A good many parishioners mustered outside and the children gave them a hearty send off. All but one are old scholars.”
Local historian David Turner reported that a photograph of the 19 volunteers with the school master was taken outside the school , and confirmed that photograph in my possession is a copy of it .
It is a lovely story, but can the claim that this photograph was taken to commemorate the event be corroborated?
First, I located the former school building, named School House and matched the spot.
The 1914 photo closely fits the area indicated by the red frame. The doorway is a distinctive shape and the level of the guttering relative to the door is the same in both photos. Although the building is now rendered, a patch of plaster had come off revealing the brickwork underneath, so the construction materials and architectural details match up. The 1872 date stone suggests the building was standing in 1914.
My photograph was inherited from Raymond Walter Coulson (1922-1997), son of Albert Walter Coulson (1888-1956). From other photographs in Raymond’s collection, I recognise Albert Walter Coulson and his brother Arthur Coulson as the two men standing at the right hand end of the second row. Facial recognition is not entirely reliable, so is not strong enough evidence by itself.
Arthur’s attestation paper, found in the National Archives’ collection of service pension records, gives his date of enlistment as 6 November 1914 . No service or pension records were found for Albert, but these record sets are known to be incomplete. Albert recorded his date of enlistment as 6 November 1914 in his Platoon Roll and Note Book, which was inherited with the photograph. Matching the dates of enlistment to the school log book entry is compelling evidence supporting the claim that the photo was taken on the 6 November 1914.
The recruits were initially assigned to the 2/5 Suffolk Regiment for training and re-assigned to other regiments later. These 19 recruits were only a proportion of Hitcham men who served during World War I.
Do you recognise any of the other recruits? Did your ancestor volunteer on the same date? I would really like to identify all 19, so please do let me know.
 Turner, David. (1999). Hitcham in the Wars. Memories from the twentieth century. Booklet no. 4. Discovering Historical Hitcham. [no publication details, distributed at Hitcham parish church]. p. 1.
 Turner, David. (29 January 2002). Letter to Sue Adams.
 Territorial Force Attestation (Army Form E 501). (6 November 1914). No. 2642, Arthur Coulson, 5th Suffolk; Digital image. British Army WWI Pension Records 1914-1920. C>Co>Cou. image no 13989 of 20031. Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk : accessed 6 November 2104); citing The National Archives. (n.d.). Coulam, Ernest – Coult, George. War Office: Soldiers’ Documents from Pension Claims, First World War (Microfilm Copies). The National Archives, Kew. WO 364/815; citing Genealogical Society of Utah. (1990-1995) microfilm no 1735807.
 Coulson, Albert Walter. ca 1917-1918. Platoon Roll and Note Book. [Inherited from son Albert Walter Coulson, Raymond Walter Coulson.] Sue Adams private collection. RWC/4/1.
© Sue Adams 2014