In Which I Discover That My Genealogy is a Hot Mess

About a year ago, I embarked on a major genealogy closet-cleaning that is still in progress.

Like many beginning genealogists, I had been overly enthusiastic about adding people, facts, and media to my tree. While I have always been very careful about adding information from other people’s family trees (which are often inaccurate) Family Tree Maker actually makes it a little too easy to add both facts and media files. But then it dumps all the media files into one folder with file names like “tmp644E” that don’t tell you anything! So, you end up with tons of duplicates because you don’t really know what you have in the first place.

In short, after years of research, my program was groaning under its own weight: operating very slowly and freezing frequently even after updating to a later version.

At first I tried cleaning up the database in FTM, but quickly discovered that, like many “idiot-proof” programs,FTM is determined to keep the user from getting under the hood, so to speak. I joined a Facebook group for organizing genealogy, and quickly learned that more experienced genealogists often use other programs, such as Legacy Family Tree Maker or RootsMagic, to organize their research and materials.

So, I downloaded a trial of Legacy, and instantly recognized the low-tech look of a good database program. It ain’t pretty, but it lets me do what I want to do. It is the stick-shift pickup of genealogy programs. I love it.

I split my genealogy into three GEDCOMs for easier handling and proceeded to strip each database down to the basics and rebuild it in an organized way.

First, I decided that the files would be much more manageable if I only downloaded media for direct ancestors. For other individuals, such as siblings, I record the names, dates, and spouses, but I only cite the source for those facts. I do not download copies of census pages, marriage, birth, or death records for anyone other than a direct ancestor.

The media files that I have kept or downloaded since are organized into folders by state, county, year, and occasionally by last name. I also edited file names so that I can tell the files apart. “tmp644E” for example, might now be “William Shaw 1880” filed under Census\Tennessee\Sumner\1880.  Now, isn’t that logical?

Each Event is now shared with relevant individuals. For example, the William Shaw 1880 census entry is shared with his spouse, children who are at home, and neighbors who are of interest. So, instead of several different copies of the same file, there is now ONE media file that documents an event for several people. It has been quite a bit of work to get this sorted out, but in the long run, this sharing system will be a huge time-saver.

I have also been creating custom facts (or Events) to categorize the general notes that I had kept for many individuals. I have a custom fact called Children. Rather than entering all the grandchildren of a direct ancestor as individuals in the database, I note their names in this custom fact which is attached to the parent of the grandchildren (the ancestor’s child). I have custom facts called Origin and Biographical Information as well, and can create more as needed. This will make the information much easier to find in the future!

I can also copy entire pages from websites, or save PDFs from publications and attach them to the custom facts for future reference. So, my virtual reference library is now integrated with my genealogy database. Events can be shared as well, so for example, a note about the origin of a surname can be shared with every ancestor carrying that surname.

As for sources, I prefer the “quick and dirty” method for citing these. I do not intend to write a book or an academic paper about my genealogy, so I use the Basic Source Writer in Legacy to record the information that I will need to find the original source later on. For example, if I find a will transcript on RootsWeb, I enter RootsWeb as the Master source, the URL of the page as the Source Detail, and the text of the page (including any source information listed there) in the Text/Comments box. That is all the information that I personally feel the need to record, however, I know that many people love Legacy’s more advanced sourcing features for detailed and proper sourcing of facts. To each his/her own.

I learned that many people use trees as a sort of “working copy” and do not feel the need to keep them synced with their local database. I didn’t understand this concept at first, but I now think it is brilliant. I uploaded my smallest tree to Ancestry and am now clicking on those little leaves to see what facts I may have missed the first time, or which may have been added since I researched that line. I am going through each individual, ignoring the irrelevant hints to remove them from the tree, and recording the useful ones. When I am finished, I will be able to see whenever new information pops up on Ancestry by the new leaves that appear beside the names.

In the process, I am finding all sorts of new information! The organizing process has also cleared up many small errors in my previous research: for example, children that were recorded twice because their names were entered differently on censuses. Sharing the census events has forced me to match up children more efficiently than I had previously done in FTM. I have also merged several duplicate people that were the result of cousin marriages: meaning listed as both a child of one person and separately as the spouse of another. (Oh, the joys of Southern genealogy…)

This may all sound kind of overwhelming, but I figure that there is no rush to get it done! I try to work on it a little every day, and for the most part, I enjoy it. We are just weeks away from an international move, and I guess I consider my little genealogy bubble to be a peaceful, orderly refuge from the impending chaos 🙂

I hope that in a few months I will have all this sorted out and then I will start writing up biographies and stories of ancestors again!



2 thoughts on “In Which I Discover That My Genealogy is a Hot Mess

  1. We are the same path to organization and I am enjoying it. Since you got me started blogging, I find that the organization is easier and helps me stay focused, instead of chasing shaky leaves.

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