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DSC03523 Files, Notes, Folders, and Books

Collecting Family History: Files, Folders, Notes, and Books

After you have decided where you are going to put your information, you start collecting the material you are going to put into your files.   The basics of genealogy are who, where, and when for births, marriages, and as you go back in time, deaths. But that’s only the skeleton of your family. You can include other information as well, such as family stories. You begin by writing down what you know about yourself and then your siblings.  Next you go back to your parents and their siblings, then to your grandparents,  as far back as you can remember.  If you remember it, write it down.  There are three forms that might help you figure out what you know and what you don’t.  These are provided with links so you can print out what your need.  There are forms for individuals. for family groups, and for direct line ancestors.  Take a look.  You should find them useful.

Have you discovered that you have a number of gaps?  Dates and places you don’t know?  Names that you can’t remember?  Your next step is to collect information from your relatives.  Ask questions of your parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and their siblings if they are still alive.  If you are older, you can talk to cousins, nieces, and nephews.  Some may be younger, but they may still have family stories you never heard or photographs you have never seen.  Be prepared for all sorts of responses. You may encounter relatives who think you are wasting your time.  Others will be curious, though maybe a little skeptical.  And you may discover that there are others in your family with a genuine curiosity about their family history.  Some may have collected family stories and/or family photographs.  You may even find someone who is working on putting together a family tree or has in the past.

It is a good idea to take notes either during or as soon after talking to a relative as possible.  Always include your name, the name of the person you talked to, how you are related, the date and the place you talked.  Someday someone may pick up your research and they will need this information.  And twenty or thirty years down the line, your memory may need a gentle nudge as well.

Sometimes you may want to actually sit down and interview a relative.  You can take notes, but see if they are willing to be taped.  In future years it will be a gift to hear their voice.  Be prepared for “but I don’t have anything interesting to say.  I don’t remember all that much.  I haven’t done anything very interesting.”  Trust me.  In 99% of the cases they do, they will, and they have.  But what do you ask them?  How do you draw them out?  This does not come naturally to most people.  You might want to take a look at some of the books or websites I’ve listed below.  You can usually find them at your local library or through your library’s  Interlibrary Loan (ILL) service.  Even if you want to buy it, it’s a good idea to take a look at a book first.  Some books will work for you and others won’t. You may not save money.  But you’ll have a better working library.


Hart, Cynthia.  The Oral History Workshop: Collect and Celebrate the Life Stories of Your Family and FriendsNew York: Workman, 2009.  907.2 H25O   This work covers all the bases.  It helps you prepare for an oral interview, and makes suggestions about the things you do once the interview is over, including transcribing and editing it. The center, Chapter 3, is comprised of all sorts of questions you could ask.  (It helps to have those prepared in advance, in case you need all of them. A good interview is knowing when to just let your interviewee tell stories and when you need to guide the interview with questions.

Greene, Bob.  To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to ComeNew York: Doubleday, 1993.  929.1 G83T   Need more questions? That is what this book is —  a list of questions sorted by category.

Ralph, LeAnn R. Preserve Your Family History: A Step-by-Step Guide for Interviewing Family Members and Writing Oral Histories.  Colfax, WI: LeAnn Ralph, 2007.  929.1 R13P

Catching Stories: A Practical Guide to Oral Historyby Donna M. DeBlasio et al.  Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 2009.  907.2 C28D


Creating Oral Histories from FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Creating_Oral_Histories

Family History Sample Outline and Questions from UCLA’s Center for Oral History Research  http://oralhistory.library.ucla.edu/familyHistory.html

Oral History Association  http://www.oralhistory.org Make sure you check out the section list at the top under the logo, especially the drop down menu under Resources.

Oral Interviews from The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress  http://www.loc.gov/folklife/familyfolklife/oralhistory.html

Oral History Primer from the University Library at the University of California, Santa Cruz  http://library.ucsc.edu/reg-hist/oral-history-primer

vea/4 April 2014
Newton Free Library
Newton, Mass
Library website:  http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net
Genealogy blog:  https://thecuriousgenealogist.wordpress.com
Genealogy LibGuide:  http://guides.newtonfreelibrary.net/genealogy

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Will you pick one method of organization or many?

Will you pick one method of organization or many?

Usually the first piece of advice many people give to a person beginning their search is to start writing down what you know about your family.  I believe there is something you need to do even before that.    You need to decide how you are you going to store your information. If you can’t easily find what you need, you will waste a lot of time both looking for material you know you have “somewhere” or re-researching material you forgot you had.

You need to decide what you are comfortable using. Do you like file cabinets and folders (the paper version) and/or notebooks (the paper version)? Do you prefer storing material on your computer’s hard drive?  Or in “the cloud” on the server of one of the companies that provides this type of service.  If you prefer working on a computer, do you want to invest in software specifically designed to save family trees and store your research?  Each method has it’s advantages and disadvantages.  I would suggest you figure out your primary filing system and storage and then start in.

Reinforcing what I mentioned above,  you are going to find that you will not always be able to work on this project every day or every week or every month and, sometimes, you may find a year has gone by before you get to it again.  When you go back to your research, you will want to waste as little time as possible trying to figure out where you were and how to find things.

There are four books that might be of help.

Organize Your Genealogy: Strategies and Solutions for Every Researcher by Drew Smith. Cincinnati, OH, Family Tree Books, 2016. This is a new work that I highly recommend. Drew Smith covers how to organize everything relating to your genealogical research. He starts out with organizing yourself and your workspace, continues with goals and notes, and only gets to organizing files by chapter 5. Other topics covered are your research process, your communications (including email and snail mail), online research, research trips, learning, and volunteering. He expects people to pick and choose the topics they need rather than reading the book front to back. I actually did read the book cover to cover and it was well worth it. Smith is a good writer as well as an informative one.

Organizing Your Family History Research by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack.  Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 1999.

Managing a Genealogical Project: A Complete Manual for the Management and Organization of Genealogical Materials by William Dollarhide.  Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1999.

Both Carmack’s and Dollarhide’s books will be more help with general principles of organization and with paper files.  They are both too old to have much current information on the use of computers in storing genealogical data.

How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia, and Family Records by Denise S. May-Levenick. Cincinnati, OH: Family Tree Books, 2012.   Archiving and preserving is all about organization and storage.  Take a look.

What if you want to use genealogy software?  How do you know which is the best for you?  I would recommend TopTenReviews.com. This site offers side-by-side comparisons of ten genealogical software programs for PCs.  There is a separate set of comparisons for Apple computers as well.  You’ll find links to these below.  Make sure you check the reviews for individual software.  I find the reviews less confusing than the vast array of options listed in the main chart.

Genealogy Software Review and Product Comparisons for PCs

Genealogy Software Review and Product Comparisons for Macs

If you have a Facebook page, you might want to take a look at the group “The Organized Genealogist.” There are always a number of good suggestions and tips for organizing on this page.  It is also a place to go when you have a specific question.  As in most genealogy groups, you always have people who have faced the same problem and are willing to help. You must sign up for it first by requesting to be included. This means you need a Facebook page of your own. I signed up for it myself and have never been disappointed. This is a link to an article about the Organized Genealogist. Their Facebook page is heavily and constantly in use. The blog is not.

vea/4 December 2013/updated 15 July 2015/updated 22 October 2016
Newton Free Library      
Newton, Mass.
Library Website:   http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net                                                                              Genealogy Blog:  https://thecuriousgenealogist.wordpress.com
Genealogy LibGuide:  http://guides.newtonfreelibrary.net/genealogy

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I will be teaching the genealogy classes at the library beginning next month. Since I have not been teaching them for awhile now, I have been doing additional research as a result.  I’ll be posting some of the things I have learned, as well as remarks on some of the books I have used.  I thought I would start at the beginning.  I have just learned from the FamilySearch Blog that there has been a lively debate going on over at Wikipedia about whether or not the terms genealogy and family history mean the same thing.  The people at Wikipedia have decided to use the two terms interchangeably.  Although people commonly do this,  I believe that there is a distinction.

Ever since I started tracing my family, the term genealogy to me has meant the direct ascent to or descent from an ancestor (depending on which way you are going).  Your line begins with yourself, then focuses on your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents.  The concept is embodied in the pedigree charts that are used to track ancestors as well as in the idea of the family tree.

Family history encompasses much more.  To begin with, it includes the brothers and sisters of your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents onward (or perhaps I should say backwards.)  It can include anyone living in the various households of your ancestors, including adopted children and extended family members.  The family group sheet illustrates this. It is the form that you use to visualize the relationships of the members of each household.  In it you include information on the birth, marriage(s), and death of each person. This is practical even if you are just interested in extending your family line.  When you hit a brick wall in your research, you may be able to get around it by looking for the needed information through a sibling and then tracking back to your ancestor.

Family history also extends into other areas to give you a fuller picture of a family at specific times and places. Genealogy makes up the outline of a family.    Learning of local and national events, discovering family stories, finding photos of family members, these all contribute depth and richness to your family history.  Sometimes finding a piece of history helps explain some change or move that took place.  The combination of personal and historical research on an ancestor can lead to forgotten or unknown events that radically changed the course of that family.  Your family becomes far more interesting than a listing of names, dates, and places.

The source of my original understanding of what genealogy is I do not remember.  My sense of the breadth of family history grew over time.  One source for these definitions that I am currently aware of is Val Greenwood.  In his work, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, his chapter 10 is entitled “Family History: Going Beyond Genealogy.”  In it he states While the goal of the genealogist has traditionally been to identify and link together past generations of ancestors into pedigrees, the goal of today’s family historian is to do that as well as to understand something of the lives and times of specific persons, couples or families over one or more generations.  

To me the distinction works.  What do you think?

vea/15 August 2013
Newton Free Library
Newton, Mass
Library website:  http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net
Genealogy blog:  https://thecuriousgenealogist.wordpress.com                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Genealogy LibGuide:  http://guides.newtonfreelibrary.net/genealogy

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