Basic Record-keeping

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Basics of Family History Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Family History Research
Home Sources
Family History Collaboration
Basics of Family History and Technology
Basics of DNA
Basic Record-keeping
Evaluation and Goal Setting
Family History in Time and Place
Family History Etiquette, Ethics, Legalities
List of Useful Resources for Beginners

This article originally appeared in "The Foundations of Family History Research" by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA, and Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

The information you acquire, collect, and record needs to be organized into a format that is easily understood by you and by others. Once your information is organized, you (and those after you) can evaluate this information to decide what to look for next (and where to look for it) and to avoid duplication in research. The following sections describe how to make the most of traditional organization methods and how to analyze findings to obtain needed information and to help set goals for additional research.

Organization and Documentation

Memories and observations are vulnerable to the ravages of time and should be preserved as soon as possible. Recording and organizing what you remember and what you learn will do more than document and preserve your findings, it will structure your investigation, enabling you to use your research time more wisely and productively. Good record-keeping practices identify what has been found in research and what has yet to be accomplished. What will a box or notebook full of jumbled research notes and documents mean to the person who may come across it months or years from now?

Family Trees and Research Logs

Most researchers use pedigree charts, family group records, and research logs to keep track of their genealogy. Whether paper based or in software, these charts and logs use similar formats and concepts. Pedigree charts provide an overview of generations or lines of descent. Pedigree charts are 'works in progress' where missing entries show areas in which further research is needed.

To organize what is known about a couple and their children, researchers use family group sheets. These forms provide spaces to record names, parents, children, spouses, dates and places of events, and other information to help identify members of a particular family. Whereas the pedigree chart is an overview of a family line, the family group record organizes and presents detailed information about a specific family.

The research activity log, also called a calendar, lists sources checked. Annotations can indicate what, if anything, was revealed by the source. The research activity log is a diary of all sources checked. Because a single entry is made for each source consulted or document (record) acquired, the log is the single most efficient way to keep track of what has been examined. A well-kept research activity log is also a table of contents to the research notes and documents acquired. The assigning of source numbers to each document makes the log a cross-reference to the entries on the family group record.

While some researchers record all research activity onto one centralized form (the research activity log), others prefer to maintain separate logs of Internet research or of correspondence. Their formats are similar to the research activity log, but these auxiliary records reflect ongoing activity that often requires a great deal of follow up. These two additional logs keep URLs, postal addresses, and other contact information in one place.

The website log is a chronological diary of sites visited and information extracted. Log entries can include more detail about randomly or seldom visited sites than for frequently visited sites. For often-used sites, a simple cross-reference could lead to a folder or notebook maintained for that site. For example, each visit to would be entered on the website log followed by the code for the collection of notes or printouts from that site. Use it to record a succinct evaluation of the quality of the site or data. Notes can indicate the surnames, dates, or locales that were checked on each visit.

A correspondence log is a table of contents to all telephone calls, letters, and e-mails sent and received. Entries are coded to separate note sheets taken for each occasion so that they can be easily retrieved. The correspondence log tells you if you replied to your aunt or if it has really been six months since you sent to New York City for a birth certificate. This log could show amounts of money that were sent to various agencies as well.

Although many family historians use or are switching to computer-based family tree software and logs, understanding how to use and keeping handy the paper-based charts is useful if you find yourself without a computer or if you prefer using paper. Printed forms for research record keeping may be purchased from genealogical societies or vendors or obtained free from the Internet ( provides these charts, which can be downloaded).

Source Files

For every source'interviews, photographs, birth certificates, military files, or other'consulted in the research process, there should be a document prepared to which you or others can easily refer to for information. Such a source document could be notes from an interview with your grandmother, transcripts of your great-grandfather's journal found in a repository, a photocopy of a birth certificate, or a digital scan of the front and back of a photograph. If information is the product of speculation (unproven or undocumented), the 'document' would be a written summary of the evidence showing the evaluation process. The information found on the source document is entered into family tree software or onto a family group sheet so that you can see it in relation to other facts learned from other sources.

Family tree programs usually allow you to enter where the source document can easily be found. There are many ways to file your source documents. Some people prefer to file all source documents as paper copies in filing cabinets or binders. Others prefer to keep digital duplicates of word processing documents, sound and movie clips, and pictures and other digital scans.

Photo taken about 1912 of the children of Raymond F. Dyer. Pictured clockwise (from eldest to youngest) Madelon, Edwin, Ethel, Muriel, and Marjorie. Courtesy of Margaret Pyburn.

An example of how this works is shown by the portrait of the children of Raymond F. Dyer. This picture held notations on the back indicating the family's location in Brooklyn, New York, and the names of the family members. This information was transferred to a family tree program along with entries from many other sources (for example, census, deed, interviews, newspaper obituary, printed biography, or probate). The photograph, both front and back, was then scanned into a computer, saved as an electronic file on a CD, and printed out to be filed with other source documents for the family or individual. The information in the family tree program included notation to where the scans of the picture could be found.

The very process of extracting details from a document and entering the information onto a family tree program or family group sheet is an analytical one. By entering information from multiple documents, discrepancies in dates, spellings, or places of origin become obvious. However, care should be taken to ensure that entries are accurate, complete, and legible so that you and others can easily understand them at a later time. Many a research project has been misdirected because of faulty recording of vital information.

No organization system is exclusively correct. A family historian should adopt what is most comfortable and practical. Experts differ widely on how to keep notes and records, so don't be afraid to experiment and modify systems to meet your specific needs. Various methods are explained in 'how-to' genealogy guides, available from booksellers and libraries everywhere. Sharon DeBartolo Carmack's Organize Your Family History Research describes and illustrates many ways to preserve research information by pen and paper or computer.


As described previously, documenting sources for information recorded in your family history files helps you and others verify quickly where information came from and where it can be easily found again if needed. Thus taking time now to document all your sources can save time later. Unfortunately, many family historians have made it a practice to publish or otherwise disseminate research results with incomplete or even without citations of the sources from which their information was derived. Patricia Law Hatcher states, 'for every statement of fact'a date, a place, a name, or a relationship'you must provide a citation. A citation states where you found that piece of information.'<ref>Patricia Law Hatcher, 'How Do You Know?' in Producing a Quality Family History (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996), 117.</ref>

The specific footnote style is up to author of the family history. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy uses the widely accepted Chicago Manual of Style, supplemented on genealogical points by Elizabeth Shown Mills's Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. The important point is to indicate sources in an economical yet comprehensive format so that other researchers can judge the quality of the proof and know where to find the cited sources. If the source is 'Personal interview, 12 February 2006, with Mable Ann (Alton) Jones, Upper Fairfax, Pierce Co., Washington,' say so. If the information is from a will not seen but given in a published abstract of probates, indicate so: 'Halifax Co., N.C., wills 3:377, Edward Montford, 3 Nov. 1801, proved Aug. ct. 1802, as cited in Margaret M. Hofmann, Genealogical Abstracts of Wills 1758 through 1824, Halifax County, North Carolina (Weldon, N.C.: Roanoke News Co., 1970), p. 121.'

Unless you are meeting the requirements of a publisher, it is far more important to be consistent, complete, and efficient than it is to use any given style. If you want to publish a family history in genealogical publications or have it considered by a lineage society or certification group, check their style and make sure your documentation conforms to their requirements.

Numbering Systems

If you decide to compile a family history, or if you run across a compiled or published family history during your research, knowledge of numbering formats is useful. In a numbering system, each individual is assigned a unique identification number that distinguishes him or her from other members in the compilation. A good numbering system allows the user to easily follow lines down through descendants or back toward the original ancestors. Use a system that is recognized by professionals as being adequate. Do not succumb to the temptation to develop your own 'personal' numbering system. The best systems are those that are easily understood, well-established, and refined as needed over the years.

Joan Ferris Curran, Madilyn Coen Crane, and John H. Wray's Numbering Your Genealogy, elaborates on two systems: the National Genealogical Society Quarterly System and the Register System, originated in 1870 by the New England Historic Genealogical Society.



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