Thursday, July 23, 2009

A matter of notes

What are YOUR genealogy program’s notes like? What kind of information do you place there, and how do you arrange it? Do you store sources in a separate file, so you don’t have to repeat the citation in every individual’s record? Do you write a narrative, or simply list the facts and state where you found them?

I have tried a number of styles (and no style at all), and am still not settled on an overall, consistent, format for my notes. But I have come up with some moderately useful ideas that I’d like to share.

Trying to find and include a lot of relatives when I started genealogy many years ago, I would often enter a single sentence indicating my source -- something to justify including the individual as part of a family. Later, when I went back to add more details, I didn’t want to delete this initial evidence, so I inserted the phrase “originally found in ... “

Sometimes the search was so intriguing I wanted to put down every twist and turn -- the false leads, the early surmises, the circuitous path that finally allowed me to complete the record (insofar as a reconstructed record of anyone’s life can be said to be “complete”).

I have found it worthwhile to keep references to most family stories, even if they are later proven to be exaggerated, askew or downright false, if only to illustrate for any future family historians that I was aware of the legend/gossip. Why didn’t I accept the note from an aunt that my great grandmother’s first husband was a Sherwood? Well, because I found Nancy with her Sherwood sisters in various records, as children in the household of their father, Thomas E. Sherwood. Her first husband turned out to be a Hammond. And what about her sons by that Hammond marriage, said to have died young, probably in the Civil War? A look at their ages, and records of their deaths from family bible transcriptions, showed that they died years after the war ended.

These family accounts did offer useful starting points, however, such as the possibility that Nancy Sherwood had been married twice, and that she reportedly had sons who died as young men.

After noting the original source for an individual (even if it turns out to be incorrect), I like to enter information in the notes field in chronological order, with the year highlighted. Thus census records, marriage returns, land grants, tombstone inscriptions and the like are arranged logically and are easy to check. I still put my sources in the notes field, but you may prefer the separate source list that most genealogy computer programs feature. “Copy and paste” keeps me from having to retype too much. I highlight personal names in the notes field too -- it is so helpful to have a program that allows for typographic variations such as boldface and italics!

Of course the chronological arrangement, from birth to death, is just the opposite of what we are supposed to do in our research, working back in time. But often neither is the actual path we take. Looking for a woman’s death record, I found instead the death of a child, giving the mother’s birth name and the full name of her husband. And searching for a man’s tombstone inscription I found, in the same plot, the name of another man, who upon investigation turned out to be a brother-in-law.

Following these leads and placing my findings in order does require a lot of editing and rearranging of notes -- thank goodness for computers and word processing programs!

And I do add comments and observations about the intriguing clues that lead me from one person to another -- they are what makes the whole process so absorbing.


Randy Seaver said...

Hi Mary,

Interesting post, thank you for the wisdom and experience.

My notes are a hodgepdge - since I started in PAF, some still have the GEDCOM !SOU type of labels! I put almost all of my sources in my Notes over the years and i'll be darned if I'll take them out now! I did not add Facts for events and things, but if I did then I'd have to Source those too.

Oh well -- Randy

valenaann68 said...

I enjoyed reading about how you put notes into your genealogy program. What software do you use? I use FTM but I'm not well versed on its many features.

Jennifer said...

Hi, Mary! I just discovered your blog. I recently started putting research notes in the research notes field for an individual in Legacy. I used to rarely use the notes field, but I've decided recently that even though I am citing facts with sources, it is much easier to follow your research path if you put it in the notes as a narrative. So now I do both. I divide my research notes section into Parents' Names, Birth Date and Place, Death Date and Place, Marriage Date and Place, and Other (for other interesting facts). I copy and paste the source citation into the notes field and then write my analysis of what it says about a birth date, marriage date, etc.

Cindy said...

I also use the notes area of FTM and love that I can go there to note some tidbit that I found and felt needed to be placed with an individual and I like the free space of it. Also if you find something that just doesn't seem correct in comparing sources, you can note it in this area for others you may share the report with. I have seen some who actually transcribe all the details from census records into every family member listed in the household's notes. This of course makes for very long reports etc. Things like wills and deeds and details from such documents as this, which you would want in your reports - I find the notes area is a great place to put them.