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

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

On writing it all down: 1. Index cards

I started out with this one (once I got past the hastily-scribbled-paper-notes stage, anyway!) I had a card per ‘family’, with the names, births, marriages, deaths and occupations noted for each member. I also noted which censuses I had found the family on and at what addresses. Each card had a number, which I could then note on other family cards against the relevant family member, to cross-reference generations
The useful thing about this approach was that it kept mother, father and children all together in one place, with all the information relating to them as a family group. It made it easy to keep track of who was related to whom.
The problem was when the children started marrying and disappearing from censuses. Obviously I would cross-reference them to their new ‘family’. But it meant a lot of duplicated info – someone’s birthdate was generally recorded in at least two places, occasionally more.
On the other hand, it meant that all the information on one family member wasn’t all kept together in one place. Their marriage wouldn’t appear when they were a child living with their parents; I would have to go elsewhere to find that. This made it difficult to easily see where there were gaps in my knowledge about a certain ancestor.
I did try running separately indexed cards per individual integrated into this system, but this just led to more duplication, and inevitably I would forget to update someone’s information somewhere.
Handwritten cards, which I originally started with, turned out to be impractical; there just isn’t the space to record everything. And it was impossible to neatly make changes without constantly rewriting cards. I switched to Word documents. But while this made updating easier, inevitably it made orderly note keeping harder – you can’t easily align columns without using a table in Word, nor can you just jot something in a margin.
And keeping an index of all this, in an orderly fashion, became a full-time hobby in itself! Plus there was the tricky situation of how to index it. As I started to go down different lines, linking it all together became untenable. The numbering was no longer logical, making it harder to work with. I would have had to completely re-index the thing to keep it running. I still have it, but rarely refer to it anymore.
Beyond how easy to use it is, I think there’s room for debate about how useful it is for actually looking at your family history. On the one hand I like the idea of having a document per person and per family. I like the logic of it, and if you could perfect the layout etc, each document could be extremely interesting – there could be space for a more narrative history or a description of each individual. It could be expanded into a file for each individual that contains everything you know about them – documents, certificates, photographs etc. On the other hand, it’s not the most stimulating presentation, it doesn’t really ‘show’ you your family; it just shows you an ancestor or a household. Which brings me onto...

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