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

Thursday, 9 February 2012

On writing it all down: 2. Paper family trees

I love the look of a family tree – there’s something very magical about seeing yourself at the bottom, and watching all this interlinking of people that all leads to you. They are a very visual representation of your family as a whole (or a part of it). They show you how individuals are linked and how the different branches fit together.
Of course, you can play around with the concept of a family tree to show pretty much anything you want – I’m using the term very loosely to cover any kind of large-ish paper-based chart.
For example, I’ve experimented with tweaking my trees to accurately show the birth and death dates of each person, almost in a bar chart style. This allows you to see who is contemporary to whom in your tree. A variation on this is to produce detailed timelines for a selection of your ancestors, to see how the various events in their lives relate to one another. Or, try using a tree or chart to show your ancestors generation by generation – this is particularly useful when you’re trying to work out how many great-great-greats you need!
Another chart form I’ve used is to create what I’ve called a ‘relationship map’ to show how different people are related to a single individual. It’s basically a spider diagram with a branch each for parents, spouses, siblings, cousins, lodgers, even ‘servants’. Then from each branch have branches linking off to show the name of each connection, with any other info you want about them. You can even then link these connections to each other, to make it clear how they’re related as well. This can be quite useful if you’re trying to visualise a complex household, or a family group that is split over several households. And this is exactly what family trees are great for – visualising information.
The problem with a family tree is that it can’t contain very much detail. Not just in terms of each individual, either. For example, it’s not easy to see when and where people were living together. Nor is it easy to get everyone’s siblings on the tree. (Not with the number of children many families had in the past anyway!) Because of this a family tree often only ends up showing the direct line. To me this detracts from the completeness of the picture – siblings are important.
A family tree can also be fiddly to create, either by hand or on the computer. Realistically you need a MASSIVE piece of paper, which then creates storage difficulties. Again, altering them might not be particularly easy. If you realise that you got the wrong person down as someone’s mother but you had perfectly planned your family tree space to fit their family, and then you have to replace them with another family that just doesn’t fit the gap, you’re going to be kicking yourself.
Which brings us to another issue – is a family tree really a good method for recording information as you find it out? I reckon it’s useful and interesting as a presentation of a (fairly) complete picture, but not exactly a working document. Which leads me onto...

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