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Source Based Document Organization - Sun, 9 Jun 2013

You may have noted my thinking that source-based data entry is the best way to enter your genealogy data … even though there are few if any programs that currently support doing it that way.

What I have also believed and may have posted elsewhere, but have never blogged about until now, is that you should also organize your documents in a source-based manner.

An excellent blog post by Sarah Ashley at GeneArtistry tells about Sarah’s discovery of the benefits of source-based document organization. She starts off by saying how she never found an ideal system.The first attempt was to organize by surname, family group or record type. She found that after a few years it was very difficult to find documents followed by “a slow decline into complete and utter chaos”.

The most important parts of Sarah’s ultimate system, which she describes in detail, are her Steps 1 and 2, where she divides her documents into source categories and how she numbers them, assigning a letter prefix with a numbered suffix. The prefix instantly tells you the category of the item. The number lets you find it quickly. Very simple and effective.

For example, she would use:
VBnnnn – For Vital Birth records,
VMnnnn – For Vital Marriage records, and
VDnnnn – For Vital Death records,
and have other prefixes for Church, Newspaper (Articles and Obituaries), Military, Cemetery, Legal (Probate, Land, Divorce and Criminal), Letters and Manuscripts and Miscellaneous.

That is the same system I use and advocate. My categories are a bit different than Sarah’s, but it’s the same idea. All your vital records are together. All your cemetery records are together. All your newspaper articles are together.

If you have a lot of records in one category, you might want to subdivide them by their type or by where you got them. In my case, I have a lot of records from archives and libraries, and I have my Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Canadian, USA, Romanian, Ukrainian and Other locations assigned their own second letter (e.g. LM, LS, LC, etc). If you have a lot of info from one particular archive, that one archive may deserve its own single letter in your system. It is worthwhile sitting down and determining your own lettering system prior to reorganizing, and then make small modifications to it as needed while reorganizing.

For interviews, mail correspondence and emails, I do like to know instantly who it is from and when I got it. Long ago, I saw a simple bibliographic technique that works well for this purpose. You take the first three letters of the person’s last name, and the first letter of the person’s first name, append the year the item is from, and add a lowercase letter to distinguish multiple items from the same person in the same year.  e.g. The fourth correspondence with John Smith in 1990 might be labeled:  SmiJ1990d.  The “m” and “i” and “d” look nice visually when they’re lowercase, but they don’t need to be.

This method for identifying people will take a bit more time to label, and a few more characters to write out, but you can see how much more info it gives than E124. This method has some minor annoyances like separating out John Smith from Jill Smith, or having more than 26 items in a year. But the visual instant recognition of the source person and the way it allows you to easily find your documents will be worth the trouble.

Currently Behold sorts your sources by the title of your source. If you title them wisely and put appropriate prefixes on the titles, such as: “Cemetery: “, “Census:”, “Marriage Record:”, etc., then Behold will give you a very nicely organized list of sources with all the source details from each.

GEDCOM has a data field for a User Reference Number (REFN) that can be added onto an Individual (INDI), Family (FAM), Multimedia (OBJE), Note (NOTE), Repository (REPO), and Source (SRCE) record. The REFN is defined as: “A description or number used to identify an item for filing, storage, or other reference purposes”. A TYPE field is allowed subordinate to the REFN, allowing categorization of the REFN’s if so desired.

This is a wonderful facility for cross referencing your work that from what I can tell, not many programs currently promote. When looking through (at the time of writing) 24,600 GEDCOMs online, only 17.5% or 4,310 of them include the REFN tag. I don’t know how many of those were automatic entries added by the program, and how many were users actually entering their own reference numbers. And offhand I didn’t see any of them using the subordinate TYPE tag.

Behold currently will display the reference numbers and types but does not do anything with them. In the Source Details section, they are listed after each source detail’s title. I’ve never had a request for this, but more than likely, a person who has developed their own Source Numbering system may want their sources ordered according to their numbering. This is an option I will include when I add editing into Behold.

If you are using Behold and you have extensive sourcing and a well-thought out source numbering system like this, please let me know. I could really use such a file for testing this feature when I develop it to ensure that I present the data the best way possible.

But for the time being, if you are currently storing all your source materials by surname or family group, or if your source materials are completely unorganized, then consider switching to a source-based method to organize your documents.

2 Comments           comments Leave a Comment

1. sue-adams (sue adams)
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Joined: Tue, 6 Dec 2011
3 blog comments, 0 forum posts
Posted: Tue, 11 Jun 2013  Permalink

In effect, we create our own archives during the course of researching our genealogy. So, taking the time to learn the basics of archival principles pays off. Sarah did just that.

I have recently blogged about preserving the provenance of my personal collection using archival principles at:

My message: Think like an archivist.

2. Louis Kessler (lkessler)
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Joined: Sun, 9 Mar 2003
232 blog comments, 226 forum posts
Posted: Tue, 11 Jun 2013  Permalink


That is a very technical and detailed blog post. Almost too detailed for me to figure out. :-)

But I understand what you’re saying and I very much agree. Store from whence it came.



The Following 1 Site Has Linked Here

  1. Hierarchical Sources - Parallax View- Tony Proctor : Sun, 8 Mar 2015
    ... Louis Kessler presented an improved version of this at Source Based Document Organization where he suggested a hierarchical organisation, and also the use of the GEDCOM REFN tag ...

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