Keep your records organised.

It’s important when you start your genealogical journey that you quickly develop a good system for record keeping and data managment. You will end up with mountains of facts and figures, names and places, photos and documents, Whether you’re using a stack of folders and notebooks or a computer and the internet, there are a few things you can do to establish good habits from the very start.

Create and maintain data standards

This might sound complicated but it’s not. It simply means creating a system for how you record things like names, dates, and locations. This is much easier to do in online genealogy programs as the interface itself directs your actions however if you’re using paper or writing up your stories it’s important to use the same conventions for information to not confuse your reader.

So, for example, for names, the general conventions are:

  • <first name> <middle name> <surname>
  • a married woman’s name is her birth name, although you can also use “nee” to indicate a maiden name if you’re writing it out in full (a note though; today many women do not take their husband’s surname so check with living people for what their preference is).
  • Aliases and original names can be recorded in the notes section of a record. Some platforms have the facility to record more than one name for an individual.

For dates, software packages usually offer a range of date display options. Pick one and stick to it. Don’t forget that in the US dates are usually formatted MM/DD/YYY, whereas in Europe and Australia, it’s usually DD/MM/YYYY. This can cause problems when entering data into software packages as they often default to the US date format.

Place names can become tricky as your research takes you further back in time. A location should ideally be recorded as what it was when the event being noted took place. Genealogical standards recommend US place names are shown as town/ city, county, or state – eg: Brooklyn, Kings, New York. For other countries, the convention is town/ city, province, or country – eg: Warszawa, Warszawa, Poland.

The borders of countries in Europe have changed markedly over the last 250 years. Whole regions have changed sovereignty and some provinces, such as Galicia, no longer exist. Some of the old documents you uncover may have town names that no longer resemble the names in use today. Jewishgen has an excellent tool on its homepage – search for a town – to help find both current and historical names of towns in Europe. Google is also a fabulous resource to find old maps and historical travelogues, however always try and cross-check information gleaned from second-hand sources, especially Wikipedia.

Cite your sources:

When you start collecting information it’s often a flurry of activity and excitement as you make quick discoveries and import information from other family members’ trees. Slow down and try to record the source of your information. This will be particularly important if you find that your data conflicts with someone else’s. If you know where your data came from you can ascertain which source has more authority – is yours a primary or secondary source? is it irrefutable or could you be wrong? Knowing where you got something from will help you judge its veracity.

Computer-based genealogical software – online and offline – all have provisions to record the source of data. It often does it automatically if you’re importing data from inside the system – for example on Ancestry or My Heritage.

Recording and citing your sources is worth it as the longer you spend on this journey the more information you have both in your head and your databases!!

Create a research Log

The final bit of advice is to maintain a research log. This can be a bit of an effort, especially when you get excited about things and just want to keep looking. But in the long run, it will minimise repeating the same mistakes over and over. That’s not to say it’s not worth revisiting some resources, despite not finding anything the first time around. Resources such as Trove and JewishGen are constantly adding more data to their collections, so while you may not have found anything when you first started your search, 12 months later relevant information may have been added. Never give up!

Sections of this article were adapted with permission from Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy,  
Gary Mokotoff (13th Edition)
Published by Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy

Jewishgen has a dedicated space for beginners to help navigate their resources.

If you’re not sure where to start researching your family history take a look at our Where To Start page. Learn how to Organise Your Research, and explore our Research Resources pages for more information on subject and country-specific research areas.