Organizing the Research Process (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Organizing The Research Process[edit | edit source]

Office Procedures[edit | edit source]

Dealing with Incoming Paperwork[edit | edit source]

There is only one way to retain control over the inevitable pile of paperwork, and your sanity. This applies to replying to mail as well as filing research notes and document copies. Set aside a regular time for dealing with the incoming paperwork and DO IT!

Remember: If you don’t file it―you won’t find it!

Dealing with Family History Society Journals[edit | edit source]

I subscribe to about 20 family history journals; I carry a couple with me at all times so they get read whilst waiting for appointments or travelling. How do I recall all the neat ideas that I find and remember to write to the various indexes and contacts that are mentioned therein? I deal with journals efficiently as follows:

  1. Reading them with a highlighter pen in hand, flagging items I need to act on or refer to later. I then put them in one magazine box at my desk for processing. When it’s full I process them, otherwise the situation gets out-of-hand. It’s good for practicing self-discipline!

  2. Processing which involves acting on items such as:
  • Writing letters, buying indexes or books by mail, and filing research ideas.

  • Noting useful indexes, sources, articles and fellow researchers in myVade Mecum (Latin = ‘go with me’, a handy reference book), actually a computer list sorted by alphabetical categories such as topics and families. The chart below shows a sample from my Vade Mecum. From time to time one can go and print off all the references pertinent to a topic of current interest and work with them.

  • Photocopying interesting items to add to family files or topic binders.

Sample from Vade Mecum List

Item Journal Code Vol.-Part-Page
1851 exhibition FTM 11-10-22
Aberdeenshire burials CD ABD 84-9
Addresses Archives GSD 5-282
Appledram MIs SS 14-2-61 14-2-61
Army Australia FTM 18-8-43
Army cyclists FTM 18-8-22
Army Kings German Legion FTM 18-8-70
Chowings vicar at Jacobstow GM 25-11-446
Chowins masons Dartmoor K 8-5-189
Chowins masons in Devon DFH 97-25
Gardener in Greenwich M interests 94-vi
Gardiner in Kent NWK 9-6-interests

3. Filing journals in date order. I file mine in magazine boxes on top of bookshelves, alphabetically by county for England, putting miscellaneous ones in other convenient spots.

It is far more efficient to make notes about items in a Vade Mecum and then file journals where you can find them quickly, than to end up with huge piles of bookmarked journals ‘that you’ll get to someday!’

Your Bibliography File![edit | edit source]

Be sure to record every source that you have searched. At any time during your research you (or anyone else) should be able to study your records and see what you have already done.

SO RIGHT NOW!! set up a bibliography file for the reference books and documents that you have consulted. This can be a simple 3" x 5" card file, or one of the many computer indexes available with word processing or genealogy programmes, or separately. Include standard details of Title, Author, Date, Publisher and then a reference to Your File Names/Numbers where the information found in it has been noted. You decide whether to file by Title, Author, or Subject. Just be consistent and make sure that it will work for you. To be effective it must be used, and this requires self-discipline. Be very particular about filing references as you add each new piece of information and each new source, including negative searches.

Each ancestral file should refer back to each of the references consulted for that person or family with a brief note (e.g. Marriage 12 June 1854 from Smith 1968) and the Bibliography will then give you the full details of Smith’s book published in 1968.

Keeping Track of FamilySearch Center Microforms[edit | edit source]

Keep a computer list of films (or sources) read showing the number, a brief title, and what family it was for. This will save you no end of grief many years down the road—trust me I wish had done it!

Multi-Purpose Numbers Chart[edit | edit source]

For keeping track of a whole host of items, a Number Sheet (1-1000) can be found in the Appendix. Each number can simply be highlighted when it is done, and for numbers over 1000 simply head further sheets ‘1000s’, ‘2000s’ etc. These can be colour-coded to indicate paternal and maternal lines. Some examples of uses include:

  • Checking off which 1891 census Piece Numbers I have read.
  • Summarizing which maps in a long, numbered series I possess.
  • Noting which ancestors have been identified, using the Sosa-Stradonitz numbers. These can be colour-coded to indicate paternal and maternal lines.

Numbering Systems[edit | edit source]

Do you need a numbering system? If you can’t think of a good reason—don’t bother!

Names are easier to work with, and your head can keep track of several hundred. When numbers get into the thousands, then a numbering system can help you organize ancestors into groups of one kind or another. However, most genealogy programmes are capable of counting, sorting and printing out lists of descendants or ancestors of a named individual. Some will also tell you how any two people are related. Any numbering system needs to be flexible enough to add newly discovered ancestors, descendants, spouses, and siblings without going into hysterics. The author has devised a simple numbering system that may be useful to others.

Parameters used for Christensen Numbering System

Why do I need a numbering system? I want to see at a glance which family line a person belongs to
What is the simplest system to use? No more than 5 digits in the ID number
Is it expandable? Yes, indefinitely
What is the simplest framework to use? Sosa-Stradonitz Ancestral Numbers
How do I read a number? Number is the ancestor (see a pedigree chart) Letters indicate relationships
Is this system suitable for use in filing? No, because there will be many people with the same number.

The Sosa-Stradonitz Ancestral Numbers: This system, first used in a family history published in 1676 by Spanish genealogist Jeronimo de Sosa, has now become the standard. Number 1 is the person whose pedigree you wish to chart, 2 is his or her father, 3 the mother, 4 the paternal grandfather, 5 the paternal grandmother etc. Thus all males have even numbers and all females odd ones, with the exception of number 1 which may be either. Any person’s father is twice his/her own number and their mother twice plus one e.g. number 6’s father is 12 and mother 13.

The Christensen System uses letters to show relationships to the ancestor.

Siblings—get the lower case letters a, b, c etc. added to my ancestor’s number. These don’t have to be in date order, so if I find another sibling then I just assign another number.

Spouses of siblings, and ancestor’s spouses that are not my direct ancestors get an upper case ‘S’ added to the base number. To keep it simple I only use S for the ancestor’s generation. All spouses of descendants are counted as descendants.

Descendants of my ancestor (except my direct line of course), just have an upper case ‘D’ added to the ancestor’s number. To keep it simple I use D to denote descendants (including spouses and step-children) only from an ancestor. Thus I use 62D rather than the form 31aD. This tells me at a glance which ancestor’s family this person belongs to, which is all I need to know. Some examples are shown in the chart below.

Examples of Christensen Numbers

13 Ancestor (mother’s father’s mother)
13a, 13b, 13c, 13d, etc. Ancestor 13’s siblings
6S Ancestor 6’s other spouse who is not my ancestor
57D Descendant (and his relatives) of my ancestor 57
88fS Spouse of sibling 88f of my ancestor 88

The National Genealogical Society (of USA) has a handy reference booklet called Numbering Your Genealogy: Basic Systems, Complex Families and International Kin by Joan Curran, Madilyn Crane and John H. Wray. It explains the common North American usage of the Register System (New England Historical Genealogical Society) and the NGSQ System (NGS Quarterly).


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.