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

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Name Conventions for Online Databases

The Family Tree manual of 6 August 2012) has some very specific instructions for entering names into the data base. I applaud this effort to establish some kind of standard, because over the years I have seen so many different ways of entering names that I find it hard to believe that any standard articulated or otherwise actually existed. If there is such a standard, it is uniformly ignored by huge segments of the genealogical community.

One of the main problems in identifying a unified system of entering data is that the diversity among the various genealogical database programs. From a global perspective there are other issues such as identifying a "surname" when the particular society has no such convention. In other societies, the name given to a child at birth changes when the child reaches a certain age or stage of acceptance in their society. Western European genealogists have paid little more than lip service to naming variations around the world. All you have to do is look at any of the major online English language databases or look at a selection of suggested genealogical forms to realize that global naming patterns are largely ignored.

For example, the Family Tree manual makes the following statement at page 39:
Enter the person’s main name. This is generally the complete name that he or she
was given at birth. You can add other versions of the name, such as nicknames or
married names, later as alternative names.
a. (Optional) In the Title field, enter the person’s title if he or she had one.
Titles include titles used for nobility, clergy, military ranks, professional affiliations,
and scholastic achievements. Examples include duke, bishop, captain, or Dr.
b. Enter the first, middle, and last names in the appropriate fields.
For a married woman, enter her maiden name if you know it.
c. (Optional) In the Suffix field, enter terms like junior, senior, or other words that
appear after the name.
You must enter at least a first or last name.
• If you do not know a mother’s or wife’s name, enter Mrs. in the Title field and
the husband's last name. If you know her maiden name, enter it instead. Do not
enter a first name.
• For a husband with an unknown name or a child who died without receiving a
name, enter only the father's last name. Do not enter a first name. Do not enter
Mr., Miss, son, or daughter. Be sure that the gender is correctly entered as male or
female if you know it.
If you are at all aware of Spanish language naming patterns, for example, you know that these instructions simply don't work.  This is not intended as a criticism, I would assume that the Spanish language version of Family Tree will reflect Spanish naming patterns, I use this as an example of how cultural-centric most of our genealogical conventions have become. The instructions from FamilySearch Family Tree are perfectly valid unless... and that is a big unless. I might venture to guess that these instructions came more from the programmers than from the genealogists.

I am not particularly picking on FamilySearch, I could go to almost any other database and use it to illustrate the same issue. For example, take a look at the search fields in The fields provide for first and middle names and last name. Of course, you can put whatever you want in the fields and will use it for a search, but the fields themselves presuppose a certain naming pattern.

First, I think we need an expansive definition of a person's "main" name. Although the instruction from FamilySearch qualifies the entry by saying it is "generally" the person's birth name, how do you make the decision as to what name to use? Even in our own culture, a person could have several names throughout his or her life with none of them being the birth name.

Also, the instruction from FamilySearch in the context of the maternal line, saying "Do not enter a first name." I cannot tell you how many thousands of entries I have seen for "Mary" or "Martha" or whatever as the only name identifying a female ancestor. Are we to understand that FamilySearch no longer wants this type of entry? What about the tens of thousands of single first name entries already in the database?

As a very basic first rule, I would suggest that all genealogists be told to record every instance of the person's name and all the variations with sources telling how each variation was found and used. If, as a programming convention, a database insists on having a single name, I suggest the programmers need to get to work and learn some genealogy. In the case of Family Tree, the program allows for the possibility by having a field for "Alternative Name" in the Other Information Section. This is the usual way of handling alternatives in genealogy programs. But the question would arise, if I only knew the first or given name of a female ancestor, should I record it as an "Alternative?"

At another place in the manual, FamilySearch Family Tree addresses the convention of capitalizing names. This practice dates back to typewritten forms and has the tendency to obscure the way many names occur such as McDonald. I find using all caps to be deplorable given computers with keyboards and shift keys.


  1. Hopefully FHISO ( has this on their plans for a Genealogical standard.

  2. James, very well said. Cultural biases abound.

    What about Norwegian farm names? There is no way to tag them in the present format except by explanation - and so many records are under those names.

    Especially egregious is "• If you do not know a mother’s or wife’s name, enter Mrs. in the Title field and the husband's last name. If you know her maiden name, enter it instead. Do not enter a first name."

    This is a totally ridiculous manifestation of cultural bias. The instruction will add a million "Mrs. Smiths" with no discernible purpose except possibly conformation with a particular Church premise.

    So what about when you know the mother but not the male parent? In most Western European languages there is no equivalent for "Mrs." that means "consort of" or "husband of." The fixation on Leave-It-To-Beaver families must be eradicated. In the forms for a child's parents, they insist on "husband" and "wife" labels. Tsk.

    Oh, and there's a big bug. If you go to "add spouse" to a person already entered with one or more children but no entered 2nd parent for them, the system automatically adds the children to the new spouse. Ridiculous.

  3. Nice article, I have seen many systems where naming choices are poor and incomplete; usually, a mixture of implementation from various people. It's tough enough to reverse engineer another person's code, never mind when there a dozen people with their hands in there. Develop a good convention and stick with it—be sensible, because if you make your convention too complex, it will be difficult to be consistent in the long run, and it will be impossible to enforce its use among other people. Research Reports