Getting Started 

   Begin with the present. Jot down what you know about your immediate family-such as, full names, dates and places of birth, marriage and death. Ask family members to help fill-in the blanks. Don't trust your memory-take the time to write everything down. Make a note of who gave you each piece of information, so you'll know who to call back if necessary. Use complete sentences when taking notes so that anyone who reads them will understand the content. Every name, date, place and relationship that you write down will have to be substantiated by a document. Try to get copies of original records from family members to verify what they tell you-such as, birth certificates, marriage records, and death certificates. If they don't have the originals, you can order them (for a fee) later; so getting a copy from relatives will save some money. Interview Relatives before It's too Late has some good tips on what questions to ask family members. 

Organize Your Notes
Organized notes might look like this, beginning with your parents (all names, dates and relationships shown below are fictional): 

Generation 1
Richard David Wilson 
son of David Otis Wilson and Arletta Mae Stone
born 15 June 1950 in Atlanta, Georgia
married 12 December 1973 in Atlanta, Georgia

Joleen Bradshaw
daughter of John Thomas Bradshaw and Bernice Ellen Porter
born 27 August 1951 in Marietta, Georgia

Their Children: 

Jamal Richard Wilson, born 9 September 1975; married Rachel Marie Boatwright on 25 June 2001 in Los Angeles, California 
Latoya Arletta Wilson, born 17 April 1978; married Arlo Gentry. 
Jadi Ellen Wilson, born 29 June 1980; married Garrett Pointer.

Notes: I called Mom and she gave me all of these dates and places. She'll be photocopying the certificates belonging to her and Dad. I have to contact Latoya and Jadi for their birth and marriage certificates.

Generation 2

David Otis Wilson
son of Clyde Wilson and [unknown]
born 1 June 1924 in Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia
died 12 February 2003 in Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia
married: [Dad is their oldest child; he thinks they married a year or two before he was born.]

Arletta Mae Stone
daughter of [call Granny Arletta for information about her family]
born 8 May 1929 in Georgia

Their Children: 
Richard David Wilson, born 15 June 1950 in Atlanta, Georgia 
Davida Mae Wilson, born 1 November 1953 in Atlanta, Georgia 
Stone Wilson, born 27 March 1955 in Atlanta, Georgia

Notes: Grandpa David worked for the railroad as a porter in the sleeping cars. He enlisted in the Army during World War II and got his old job back in 1946. He had great genes-nothing more than a bad cold and some aches and pains before he died in his sleep nearly three years ago. He loved to sing in the A.M.E. church choir, the shower and on the front porch for passers-by. Everyone in the family will be taping their favorite story about the "old days" as told by Pop Wilson. Granny Arletta will dig out her papers on the Stone and Wilson families and call me next week.

As you talk to more people and collect new documents, you'll be revising your notes. Computerizing your notes will make revisions easier. 

Creating a Research Notebook  

There are two basic methods for the physical organization of your raw research data. Which method you choose depends on how you work and think and how you choose to find things when you need them. The following explanation is for all those things that do not fit in your presentation book which is discussed later:

· Histories of counties

· Related families

· Copies of letters to other researcher

Arrangement by Geographic Location  

For a project involving many surnames and families, or families that move around quite a bit, we find organizing data by location is best. Most of the records you will encounter are easily tied to a location, but may include several surnames you are searching. If you file by location, you won't have to make duplicate copies of items you extract. We suggest you prepare a separate research log for each location. Keeping the research logs short is the key. You will want to be able to see at a glance what sources are available and whether you have completed a thorough survey of the area. Depending on the number of sources available, we make logs for each town, county, and state.

Arrangement by Surname  

There are some sources that are surname-oriented, i.e., surname genealogies, PERSI articles, indexes to federal military records, etc. A notebook with surname research logs may be added. These logs tend to be short.

If your project involves intensive research on one family, organizing a notebook by surname may be better. Within these notebooks, we generally have two sections, one with tabs for each family and another subdivided by location.

Here are some hints from Janna for making a successful notebook:  

Hint: Take all your notes on 8-1/2 x 11 paper. As you take your notes, put the location or surname you are searching at the top of the page. It will make for easy filing later. Don't be tempted to mix locations on one page. Using a fresh sheet of paper is inexpensive, much less expensive than photocopying it later.

Hint: As we review collected material and identify items to transfer to family group sheets, we check them off, using a green pen. When another pass through the data book is necessary, we can focus on unchecked items.

Hint: We prefer three-ring notebooks that can be subdivided if you acquire a thick group of papers on one subject.

Hint: Write the surnames you are searching at the top of your research log. Add the date that your location was created and its parent's name.

Hint: Add a "to-do" list to the front of your notebook, or post it on your research log.

Hint: Make a "Miscellaneous Notebook" with an index in the front in which to collect handouts from lectures, catalogs, a perpetual calendar, etc.

Super Hint: When you've started a research log for your surname or location, use your library catalog to make a list of every item that applies to your research quest. Fill in the name of the item and the call number, but leave the date column blank. You will have compiled a list that you can prioritize and choose items to check. Janna always starts by filling in her research logs with a list culled from the Family History Center online catalog at and adds items from PERSI (the Periodical Source Index available at She may add URLs for sites on the Internet that have pertinent data.

Basic Record-keeping
Basics of Family History Research 

This article is part of a series.  
Overview of Family History Research  
Home Sources  
Family History Collaboration  
Basics of Family History and Technology  
Basics of DNA  
Basic Record-keeping  
Evaluation and Goal Setting  
Family History in Time and Place  
Family History Etiquette, Ethics, Legalities  
List of Useful Resources for Beginners  

This article originally appeared in "The Foundations of Family History Research" by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA, and Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy 

The information you acquire, collect, and record needs to be organized into a format that is easily understood by you and by others. Once your information is organized, you (and those after you) can evaluate this information to decide what to look for next (and where to look for it) and to avoid duplication in research. The following sections describe how to make the most of traditional organization methods and how to analyze findings to obtain needed information and to help set goals for additional research. 


 Organization and Documentation

Memories and observations are vulnerable to the ravages of time and should be preserved as soon as possible. Recording and organizing what you remember and what you learn will do more than document and preserve your findings, it will structure your investigation, enabling you to use your research time more wisely and productively. Good record-keeping practices identify what has been found in research and what has yet to be accomplished. What will a box or notebook full of jumbled research notes and documents mean to the person who may come across it months or years from now? 

Family Trees and Research Logs

Most researchers use pedigree charts, family group records, and research logs to keep track of their genealogy. Whether paper based or in software, these charts and logs use similar formats and concepts. Pedigree charts provide an overview of generations or lines of descent. Pedigree charts are “works in progress” where missing entries show areas in which further research is needed. 

To organize what is known about a couple and their children, researchers use family group sheets. These forms provide spaces to record names, parents, children, spouses, dates and places of events, and other information to help identify members of a particular family. Whereas the pedigree chart is an overview of a family line, the family group record organizes and presents detailed information about a specific family. 

The research activity log, also called a calendar, lists sources checked. Annotations can indicate what, if anything, was revealed by the source. The research activity log is a diary of all sources checked. Because a single entry is made for each source consulted or document (record) acquired, the log is the single most efficient way to keep track of what has been examined. A well-kept research activity log is also a table of contents to the research notes and documents acquired. The assigning of source numbers to each document makes the log a cross-reference to the entries on the family group record. 

While some researchers record all research activity onto one centralized form (the research activity log), others prefer to maintain separate logs of Internet research or of correspondence. Their formats are similar to the research activity log, but these auxiliary records reflect ongoing activity that often requires a great deal of follow up. These two additional logs keep URLs, postal addresses, and other contact information in one place. 

The website log is a chronological diary of sites visited and information extracted. Log entries can include more detail about randomly or seldom visited sites than for frequently visited sites. For often-used sites, a simple cross-reference could lead to a folder or notebook maintained for that site. For example, each visit to would be entered on the website log followed by the code for the collection of notes or printouts from that site. Use it to record a succinct evaluation of the quality of the site or data. Notes can indicate the surnames, dates, or locales that were checked on each visit. 

A correspondence log is a table of contents to all telephone calls, letters, and e-mails sent and received. Entries are coded to separate note sheets taken for each occasion so that they can be easily retrieved. The correspondence log tells you if you replied to your aunt or if it has really been six months since you sent to New York City for a birth certificate. This log could show amounts of money that were sent to various agencies as well. 

Although many family historians use or are switching to computer-based family tree software and logs, understanding how to use and keeping handy the paper-based charts is useful if you find yourself without a computer or if you prefer using paper. Printed forms for research record keeping may be purchased from genealogical societies or vendors or obtained free from the Internet ( provides these charts, which can be downloaded). 

Source Files

For every source—interviews, photographs, birth certificates, military files, or other—consulted in the research process, there should be a document prepared to which you or others can easily refer to for information. Such a source document could be notes from an interview with your grandmother, transcripts of your great-grandfather’s journal found in a repository, a photocopy of a birth certificate, or a digital scan of the front and back of a photograph. If information is the product of speculation (unproven or undocumented), the “document” would be a written summary of the evidence showing the evaluation process. The information found on the source document is entered into family tree software or onto a family group sheet so that you can see it in relation to other facts learned from other sources. 

Family tree programs usually allow you to enter where the source document can easily be found. There are many ways to file your source documents. Some people prefer to file all source documents as paper copies in filing cabinets or binders. Others prefer to keep digital duplicates of word processing documents, sound and movie clips, and pictures and other digital scans. 

Photo taken about 1912 of the children of Raymond F. Dyer. Pictured clockwise (from eldest to youngest) Madelon, Edwin, Ethel, Muriel, and Marjorie. Courtesy of Margaret Pyburn.
An example of how this works is shown by the portrait of the children of Raymond F. Dyer. This picture held notations on the back indicating the family’s location in Brooklyn, New York, and the names of the family members. This information was transferred to a family tree program along with entries from many other sources (for example, census, deed, interviews, newspaper obituary, printed biography, or probate). The photograph, both front and back, was then scanned into a computer, saved as an electronic file on a CD, and printed out to be filed with other source documents for the family or individual. The information in the family tree program included notation to where the scans of the picture could be found. 

The very process of extracting details from a document and entering the information onto a family tree program or family group sheet is an analytical one. By entering information from multiple documents, discrepancies in dates, spellings, or places of origin become obvious. However, care should be taken to ensure that entries are accurate, complete, and legible so that you and others can easily understand them at a later time. Many a research project has been misdirected because of faulty recording of vital information. 

No organization system is exclusively correct. A family historian should adopt what is most comfortable and practical. Experts differ widely on how to keep notes and records, so don’t be afraid to experiment and modify systems to meet your specific needs. Various methods are explained in “how-to” genealogy guides, available from booksellers and libraries everywhere. Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s Organize Your Family History Research describes and illustrates many ways to preserve research information by pen and paper or computer. 


As described previously, documenting sources for information recorded in your family history files helps you and others verify quickly where information came from and where it can be easily found again if needed. Thus taking time now to document all your sources can save time later. Unfortunately, many family historians have made it a practice to publish or otherwise disseminate research results with incomplete or even without citations of the sources from which their information was derived. Patricia Law Hatcher states, “for every statement of fact—a date, a place, a name, or a relationship—you must provide a citation. A citation states where you found that piece of information.”[1] 

The specific footnote style is up to author of the family history. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy uses the widely accepted Chicago Manual of Style, supplemented on genealogical points by Elizabeth Shown Mills’s Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. The important point is to indicate sources in an economical yet comprehensive format so that other researchers can judge the quality of the proof and know where to find the cited sources. If the source is “Personal interview, 12 February 2006, with Mable Ann (Alton) Jones, Upper Fairfax, Pierce Co., Washington,” say so. If the information is from a will not seen but given in a published abstract of probates, indicate so: “Halifax Co., N.C., wills 3:377, Edward Montford, 3 Nov. 1801, proved Aug. ct. 1802, as cited in Margaret M. Hofmann, Genealogical Abstracts of Wills 1758 through 1824, Halifax County, North Carolina (Weldon, N.C.: Roanoke News Co., 1970), p. 121.” 

Unless you are meeting the requirements of a publisher, it is far more important to be consistent, complete, and efficient than it is to use any given style. If you want to publish a family history in genealogical publications or have it considered by a lineage society or certification group, check their style and make sure your documentation conforms to their requirements. 

Numbering Systems

If you decide to compile a family history, or if you run across a compiled or published family history during your research, knowledge of numbering formats is useful. In a numbering system, each individual is assigned a unique identification number that distinguishes him or her from other members in the compilation. A good numbering system allows the user to easily follow lines down through descendants or back toward the original ancestors. Use a system that is recognized by professionals as being adequate. Do not succumb to the temptation to develop your own “personal” numbering system. The best systems are those that are easily understood, well-established, and refined as needed over the years. 

Joan Ferris Curran, Madilyn Coen Crane, and John H. Wray’s Numbering Your Genealogy, elaborates on two systems: the National Genealogical Society Quarterly System and the Register System, originated in 1870 by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. 

Types of Genealogy Sources 

When evaluating and documenting the sources used to establish your family tree connections, it is important to understand the different types of sources. 
Original vs. Derivative Sources 
Referring to the provenance of the record, original sources are records that contribute written, oral, or visual information not derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from another written or oral record. Derivative sources are, by their definition, records which have been derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from previously existing sources. Original evidence usually carries more weight than derivative evidence.
Within each source, whether original or derivative, there are also two different types of information: 
•Primary vs. Secondary Information 
Referring to the quality of the information contained within a particular record, primary information comes from records created at or near the time of an event with information contributed by a person who had reasonably close knowledge of the event. Secondary information, by contrast, is information found in records created a significant amount of time after an event occurred or contributed by a person who was not present at the event. Primary information usually carries more weight than secondary information.

Two Rules for Great Source Citations 
Rule One:  Follow the Formula - While there is no scientific formula for citing every type of source, a good rule of thumb is to work from general to specific: 
1.Author - the one who authored the book, provided the interview, or wrote the letter 
2.Title - if it is an article, then the title of the article, followed by the title of the periodical 
3.Publication Details •place of publication, name of publisher and date of publication, written in parentheses (Place: Publisher, Date) 
•volume, issue and page numbers for periodicals 
•series and roll or item number for microfilm
4.Where You Found It - repository name and location, Web site name and URL, cemetery name and location, etc. 
5.Specific Details - page number, entry number and date, date you viewed a Web site, etc.

Rule Two: Cite What You See - Whenever in your genealogical research you use a derivative source instead of the real thing, you must take care to cite the index, database or book that you used, and NOT the actual source from which the derivative source was created. This is because derivative sources are several steps removed from the original, opening up the door for errors, including: 
•handwriting interpretation errors 
•microfilm viewing errors (out of focus, back side bleeding through, etc.) 
•transcription errors (skipping lines, transposing numbers, etc.) 
•typing errors, etc.
Even if a fellow researcher tells you that they found such and such a date in a marriage record, you should cite the researcher as the source of information (noting as well where they found the information). You can only accurately cite the marriage record if you have viewed it for yourself. 

There is nothing more frustrating to a genealogist than locating details on an ancestor in a published book, Web page, or database, only to later find that the information is full of errors and inconsistencies. Grandparents are often linked as parents, women bear children at the tender age of 6, and often entire branches of a family tree are attached based on nothing more than a hunch or guess. Sometimes you may not even discover the problems until quite some time later, leading you to spin your wheels struggling to confirm inaccurate facts, or researching ancestors who aren't even yours. 

What can we as genealogists do to a) be sure that our family histories are as well-researched and accurate as possible, and b) educate others so that all of these inaccurate family trees don't continue to procreate and multiply? How can we prove our family tree connections and encourage others to do the same? This is where the Genealogical Proof Standard established by the Board for Certification of Genealogists comes in. 

Genealogical Proof Standard 
As outlined in the "BCG Genealogical Standards Manual" (Compare Prices), the Genealogical Proof Standard consists of five elements: 
•A reasonably exhaustive search for all pertinent information 
•A complete and accurate citation to the source of each item used 
•Analysis of the collected information's quality as evidence 
•Resolution of any conflicting or contradictory evidence 
Arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion

A genealogical conclusion that meets these standards can be considered proved. It may still not be 100% accurate, but it is as close to accurate as we can attain given the information and sources available to us. 

Sources, Information & Evidence 
When collecting and analyzing the evidence to "prove" your case, it is important to first understand how genealogists use sources, information and evidence

Original vs. Derivative Sources 
Referring to the provenance of the record, original sources are records that contribute written, oral, or visual information not derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from another written or oral record. Derivative sources are, by their definition, records which have been derived - copied, abstracted, transcribed, or summarized - from previously existing sources. Original sources usually carry more weight than derivative sources

•Primary vs. Secondary Information 
Referring to the quality of the information contained within a particular record, primary information comes from records created at or near the time of an event with information contributed by a person who had reasonably close knowledge of the event. Secondary information, by contrast, is information found in records created a significant amount of time after an event occurred or contributed by a person who was not present at the event. Primary information usually carries more weight than secondary information. 

Direct vs. Indirect Evidence 
Evidence only comes into play when we ask a question and then consider whether the information found in a particular record answers that question. Direct evidence is information that directly answers your question (e.g. When was Danny born?) without a need for other evidence to explain or interpret it. Indirect evidence, on the other hand, is circumstantial information that requires additional evidence or thought to convert it into a reliable conclusion. Direct evidence usually carries more weight than indirect evidence.

These classes of sources, information and evidence are rarely as clear-cut as they sound since information found in one particular source can be either primary or secondary. For example, a death certificate is an original source containing primary information directly relating to the death, but may also provide secondary information regarding items such as the deceased's date of birth, parent's names, and even children's names. If the information is secondary, it will have to be further assessed based on who provided that information (if known), whether or not the informant was present at the events in question, and how closely that information correlates with other sources.