"Each has his own tree of ancestors, but at the top of all sits Probably Arboreal." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

On recording names

As part of my bid to get on top of my record keeping, I am setting up an entirely new system, consisting of a database of individual and household documents and an index spreadsheet which lists and cross references ancestors and contains some basic info as well, allowing it to be used for quick reference during research.  I’ve now compiled the bare bones of my indexing spreadsheet and put my direct line ancestors in to see if it works – and it does!
I’ll explain more later about how the system works, but they key thing is that having established the basic functionality, I began defining rules for inputting information. This is more complex than I initially thought, names being the most complicated issue: How to spell them, what about middle names, what about where names change...
I decided that my key aim was usability. But as I said, the function of my spreadsheet is two-fold: To index and cross-reference my individual records (and later household records too), and to act as a quick reference guide when doing research.
So, I want to put the fullest possible version of an ancestor’s name in my index, so that it gives the maximum amount of info at a glance for searching from. On the other hand, I can’t possibly include all variants of spellings, initials and even order of names, let alone the various shortened forms and nicknames that are often used, because it would become totally unwieldy. And that, after all, is what my individual documents are for!
I believe that the ‘industry standard’ (for want of a better term) is to use the name as it appears at baptism, which seemed to make sense, so perhaps I will use that as my baseline – where I have a baptism record, at least! In the absence of one I will have to 'compile' a name based on the information available to me, in order to give the most useful parameters for searching. In either case, I will make sure that all known middle names are included, regardless of whether or not they appear on the baptism.
I will not standardise the spelling as it appears on the baptism record unless I feel that it is likely to impair understanding (i.e. due to extremely poor spelling), or to mislead (i.e. because it differs wildly from every other known occurrence of the name). Where I have had to ‘compile’ a name, I will use the most frequently occurring spelling in the first instance.
In the case of shortened forms or initials, I decided that it would be best to give as much info as possible, so if I know what an initial stands for (from another record) I will expand it. Where only a shortened form appears, I will have to make a case by case judgement. For example: Will might not be expanded to William because I can’t be sure that it isn’t the name in its own right, but Wm or Thos, as often occur, can be fairly confidently expanded to William and Thomas.
The above applies mainly to the forenames of the ancestor. I had to rethink my rules on surnames, because I wanted consistency across generations within my spreadsheet for ease of reference and sorting.
So for example, if the same surname was spelt differently across different baptism records I would want to eradicate that discrepancy in order to index all ancestors with that surname under a single spelling. In this case the most frequently occurring spelling will be adopted, but alternative spelling linked with an ancestor will be recorded in their individual file. I will also create a separate list, to be used alongside, of alternative spellings of every surname, with an indication of frequency of occurrence and under which spelling ancestors of that surname are listed.
However, I have already identified one possible exception to that rule: Hancocks later became Hancock. This highlights the fine line between a spelling variant and a change of surname. My instinct (although I want to assess this properly by going back through the records) is that there was a distinct shift from one to the other. While there may have been instances of them being used alongside one another at different times (to be recorded as variant uses), if my perception is correct and there is a clear change of name then they must be essentially documented as two separate surnames. The reason behind the change is something I will then explore, and the point of change be identified in order to record them separately.
Another rule is that only one surname is used – the ‘final’ one. So Kathleen Birchall Geoghegan would take Geoghegan as a surname and Kathleen Birchall as forenames, even though Birchall (her mother’s maiden name) could potentially be considered part of her surname rather than a forename. Because both variants occur in record transcriptions, and it isn't always clear how the name was used, I decided that only the last name, which is indisputably used as a surname, should be recorded as such. (Though when carrying out searches it is wise to consider both variants) The exception to this would be where surnames are clearly double-barrelled / hyphenated in the records. There are currently none of these in my family tree – we’re not posh enough!
If I don’t know a name the field is filled in as Unknown. I am recording surnames at birth as the primary means of listing, with a separate column for married name, in which I record NA for men and Unknown if not known. This marreid name column refers to the married name that I have judged to be most relevant to my own ancestry. I then have a separate column for other surnames, to be coded for clarity: a name followed by (m) indicates a name from any other marriage. In either case, where no records have been found under the married name it is assumed to have existed anyway.
In other surnames section a name followed by (aka) indicates that this is a completely different name to their listed surname (not a variant), which has been used in a record. This section may include name changes, stage names - particularly relevant in my case, and names taken from step-parents.
Known forenames, particularly nicknames that differ drastically from the indexed forenames (as opposed to obvious contractions of them), will be recorded in the notes section. The obvious example from my tree is Ellen Geoghegan, who was also recorded as Dot Geoghegan in a couple of instances. 
All known variants of surnames and forenames, including all nicknames, and spellings thereof will be given in the individual record, with explanatory notes if necessary.
As you can see, this takes some defining, and I’ve had to do it for many other aspects of my index too. However, naming was definitely the most complex part. Thoughts and useful pointers on this topic gratefully received! I think now I need to boil these down into simple and easy-to-follow usage notes for my index, and then put them into practice and see how I get on!
L x

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