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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 6/18/2003

Organizing Data

This week we start with a quote not from a genealogist but from a mathematician.

"A great discovery solves a great problem but there is a grain of discovery in the solution of any problem. Your problem may be modest; but if it challenges your curiosity and brings into play your inventive facilities, and you solve it by your own means, you may experience the tension and enjoy the triumph of discovery."
—George Polya

Sounds like genealogy, doesn't it? While Polya was a mathematician, he is better known for his problem solving approach than anything else. And isn't genealogy problem solving? In fact, each genealogist has his or her own problem to solve.

Polya reasoned that there were four steps to the problem solving process:
  • Understanding the Problem
  • Devising a Plan
  • Carrying out the Plan
  • Looking back

    Personally, I think understanding the problem completely is the most important part of the process. One excellent way to understand any problem better is to organize the information we already have. This week we look at a partial list of ways to organize genealogical information. Our discussion is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather our intent is to illustrate some ways genealogical facts can be put together, all the while hoping to notice something we did not notice before. Some of these techniques are old standards in "genealogy land" and some are not.

    Family Group Charts
    A family group chart contains basic genealogical information on one couple and their children and is undoubtedly one of the most popular genealogical forms used today. The form provides a research framework for searching the entire family, which is an excellent genealogical strategy. Blank copies of these charts are also excellent to pass around at the family reunion for relatives to complete. A downloadable family group chart is available at the site at: Most genealogists started out with family group charts, and these charts continue to serve an excellent purpose throughout our research.

    Pedigree Charts
    This chart typically outlines four or more generations of one person's ancestry, listing at least the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and is another very popular form. Often the purpose of this chart is to provide a skeleton of one person's ancestry. A downloadable pedigree chart is available at:

    Discrepancy Charts
    This is one of my favorite types of charts, probably because I have so many confusing ancestors. This chart organizes conflicting dates or places for one specific event in a person's life. My great-grandmother was supposedly born in five different places and charting this information made it easier for me to keep track of what record provided what place of birth. I find it helpful to list all various dates for an event along with where that specific information was obtained and who was the likely informant on that record. This summary helps me to compare all the information and determine as best I can which date or location is most likely to be correct. An article discussing discrepancy charts and two specific examples can be viewed at:

    Acquaintance Sheets
    For certain time periods and areas, tracking an ancestor's acquaintances is an important part of the research process. Have you ever encountered the name of a witness on a relative's document and been sure that you have seen that name somewhere else before? Tracking the individuals who were somehow involved in your ancestor's life may help you determine where the ancestor was from, to whom he was related, or where he later went. Deeds, wills, bonds, and other records frequently have names of other individuals as witnesses, neighbors, or bondsmen. If the same names appear with your ancestor in Kentucky and in Virginia, there may be a relatively strong connection. A sample of an acquaintance sheet is viewable here:

    Working an ancestor out from birth to death (including everything in between) is an excellent way to organize information and notice gaps and oversights in your research. Regular readers of the "Ancestry Daily News" are familiar with this approach as several of us have written about it before, largely because we know that chronologies are an extremely valuable genealogical tool and can be used in several different situations.

    Chronology articles from the Ancestry Daily News:

    Step-By-Step: Creating A Timeline

    Space-Time Continuum

    Geographic Organization
    Maps are essential to family history research. Mapping out all those locations in an ancestor's life may help you to see geographic areas that have been overlooked in your research. It may also help you to gain a better perspective on an ancestor's life. Maps organize information geographically; this is something that cannot always be done easily with only text. Things that appear inconsistent may not appear as inconsistent when viewed on a map. The different places of birth for my great-grandmother are in four towns in three states. However when viewed on a map all these locations are in close proximity to each other and are not as different as they appear on the surface. A picture truly is worth a thousand words. And a map may prevent you from wasting many hours of research time.

    Let Your Software Do the Work
    One of my favorite things to do with my genealogical software package is to have it give me a listing of all the individuals in my database who match a certain criteria. I do more with this than just see who is born on the same day as I am. These kinds of reports are especially useful when preparing for research trips or using certain records. Can your software print out a list of everyone in your database born in a certain village, sorted by date of birth? Many programs do, and such reports are especially helpful when using records that are organized chronologically. I insert extra lines between each entry on the report and have a custom-made research log for use at the research facility. This saves me time and helps me to look for everyone in the record that I want. It sure beats flipping through hundreds of family group charts to see who was born in which village. There's an example of a sorted list at:

    Other Techniques?
    There are other organizational techniques that researchers can also employ. Reorganizing information can help us to notice gaps and inconsistencies in our research—and hopefully make us aware of clues we have overlooked. Think about the number of ways a child can "arrange" five building blocks. Putting the five single blocks in a horizontal row or a in a vertical column does not change each individual block and yet the appearance of the configuration is different. There are many other stacking arrangements that can be made without changing each block. Think of your data as blocks that can be stacked or organized in different ways. What you see depends upon how you organize what you have. Just remember, that one big pile on your desk usually does not count!

    Copyright 2003, Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can email him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

  • Michael's other articles from the Ancestry Daily News