Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Seventeen: The need for structure

The iconic image of a pedigree chart has become a symbol of genealogy for some of the world's family historians. True, this simple form of pedigree obscures a vast wealth of family relationships, but it is and was intended to focus the researcher on "direct lines" i.e. blood lines. For some, this same chart becomes an excuse for dismissing genealogy as shallow name gathering. But the real issue is not the icon but the direction and motivation of the process.

When I was a lot younger than I am today, I became an avid postage stamp collector, aka philatelist. This continued well into my married years. In fact, it would take very little to get me involved in collection stamps again. One side benefit of my stamp collecting activity was an expansive understanding of the political subdivisions of the world. I learned all about San Marino and Wurttemberg before most the children my age knew there was a place called Europe. This early geographic learning has helped me understand some aspects of genealogical research, now many, many years later.

Another thing I learned about the world from stamps was the need for some type of structure or organization. You could just shove all your stamps into a box or in a bag and forget about them. But if you wanted to "collect stamps" and have something to show for your work, you had to put them in pre-printed albums with spaces for all the stamps that existed. You could see at a glance what you had and what you didn't have.

Now did my collecting instinct push me into "collecting" my ancestors? Maybe for some people this may be the main motivation, but for me, collecting has not played an important part in my genealogical motivation. But what about all the stuff I have accumulated through my research including all the stuff that I inherited from relatives near and distant?

The ideas of organization and structure are the keys to a successful research effort. Unstructured research is like a ship without a rudder, it is left to drift where ever it may. Most of my genealogical life has been spent in imposing a structure on vast amounts of unstructured information from a variety of sources. You may decry the traditional looking pedigree chart, but biological relationships are the most common.

Today, you can choose many different ways of organizing your research efforts. In fact, I would go so far as to say that without structure and organization, your research is doomed to failure and confusion. I have spent many hours watching potential researchers thumb through their piles of paper, trying to remember and find information about a specific ancestor. Is the above basic pedigree chart a solution? Not at all. It is merely a stop-gap way of imposing a very limited view of the way families can be structured and organized. My Great-grandmother had a paper-based system of organization but by the time she had researched about 16,000 names, she repeated (duplicated) her research three times. Paper-based systems resist expansion past a certain number of individuals. Historically, libraries and other archives had to create a cataloging system to account for and keep track of their paper-based information.

Are computer-based systems the answer? Many people try to impose their own particular paper-based system (color-coding, individual files, file naming systems etc.) on the computer. If I go online and search for genealogical organization systems, I find dozens of different systems for "organizing your files." Guess what? This is exactly what computers do. Guess what else? I do not try to compete with computers and do what they do well. This is probably one area of genealogy where I get the most emotional disagreement. Everyone has their "system."

I use computer programs to organize my research. I enter all the information I find into a genealogy database program. Over the years, I have used more than a dozen such programs. What I find is that with the current programs all of the "organization" is accomplished within the program. No, I am not going to recommend any one program. But most of the current programs have some or all of the following categories of features:

  • Tagging individuals 
  • Notes for every field of information
  • Source documentation
  • Documentation through attached links and media
  • Unlimited fields
  • Comprehensive search functions
  • Create reports 
  • Allow you to publish your family history

The list can go on and on. In short, by being careful to enter all of your research into a genealogical database program, it will already be organized. You don't really need to try to invent a new way to organize your research or use someone's system for organizing. You simply have to use the tools that are readily available. If you want to see how all the programs stack up, you can see user supplied reviews on

Previous installments of this series include:

1 comment:

  1. James, this is my favorite post on research elements. You have put a terrific visual of collecting vs research and organization in perspective. Great words to help us teach others the difference between gathering and working hard at good research. Thanks!