Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My Way or the Highway? Thoughts on Genealogical Research and Organization

Is there just one way to do genealogical research?

Over the years, I have noticed that almost every genealogy conference has at least one class on either research methodology or organizing everything once you begin the process. All of these presenters are convinced that they have the "best" way to do genealogical research and organization.

On the other hand, I believe that research methodology is highly personal. Each of us has our own way of gathering information, evaluating what we find and recording the results of our efforts. I have proposed my own methodology and you can see a small part of what I have to say in these two presentations.

Organizing Genealogy Files by James Tanner

What's in that Pile? Organization for the Disorganized Genealogist - James Tanner

Am I right? Are all the other organizers and research specialists wrong? Well, there is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to gathering, evaluating and storing information. There are methods that are more effective than others and there are certainly traditional ways of doing research, some of which are taught in schools in the United States and I presume, elsewhere. But since I went to school, technology has changed and we now have personal access to computers and the vast resources of the internet. Many of the traditional methods of doing research, such as using 3" x 5" cards to record sources are woefully outdated. But underlying all of these "traditional" methods there are some basic principles that are still vitally necessary to making progress in genealogical research.

Vital to the whole process of research, especially historical research as done by genealogists, is the ability to properly evaluate our sources of information. Aunt Matilda may have been a lovely person, but relying on the information orally or in writing provided by a relative without independently looking at the sources of that information is a trap that many genealogists seem to fall into regularly. In an effort to make the process of evaluating information more objective, some genealogists have resorted to a hierarchy of "information origins." Some of these methods of evaluation have been borrowed directly from the legal community. Others are based on creating artificial classifications such as focusing on the time and place where the information may have been recorded.

A good example of the difficulty in evaluating records can be found with an examination of almost any English Parish records. Although the records are similar across the parishes of the country, they are not at all uniform in either format or content. It is also impossible to tell if the parish priest recorded the information at the time of the events or did so from memory at a later date. Just because a record happens to be dated, does not necessarily mean that the record was entered on that date. Records can be back-dated to reflect events that were "supposed to be" recorded at the time the events occurred.

On the other hand, Aunt Matilda's memory might be infallible and a written record dated at the time of the event could be inaccurately recorded. Often records have to be evaluated in the context of all the other records available at the time and place an event occurred.  People do lie and falsify records for a multitude of reasons.

That said, how we go about finding the records depends on our personal educational background and learned organizational skills. Some people prize neatness over being accurate and complete. Others accumulate piles of documents and records and never seem to get around to organizing them at all. I probably fall more into the pile category than the over-organized category. But the end product of genealogical research is not a neatly organized pile of documents. Documents organized or disorganized by the individual need to be preserved. Today, we have vast a place where everything can be both preserved and organized at the same time for free. That is the vast online website called By putting digital copies of your records and documents in the Memories section of and tagging them to individuals in the unified, collaborative Family Tree program, you have preserved your records in what is presently, in my opinion, the repository that is most likely survive any future changes. Family group records that I submitted over thirty years ago are still available from

Do we still need to worry about accuracy, evaluating records and organizing what we have done and what is remaining to be done? Absolutely, but why do everything twice or three times? If we put our records into the Family Tree whatever the state of our personal record collection, what we enter into the program is organized and remains preserved for our posterity whether or not the care to look at it or not. We solve the organizational problems and the preservation problems at the same time.

I have seen beautifully color-coded sets of genealogical records in lovely binders separated out by ancestral line disappear when the genealogist died, just as quickly as disorganized piles of records in cardboard boxes. We now have the means to stop this loss.

Choose you own personal method of organizing that suits your workflow and your objectives from all those offered, but in end, think about what will happen to all those organized records if they are not preserved. 

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