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September 2. 2005
Oh! Blessed rage for order!*
by - Ralph Bloch

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Now you have your stash of random notes, books, brochures, documents and recordings all in a box. Let us arrange them a bit. In the first section we put all the items which pertain to genealogy and history in general. They may deal with global or local issues. But they are not specific to you and your ancestors. We call this "the generic section".

A second section is reserved for documents and recordings that relate to your extended family proper. This makes up "the family section".

The last section is probably still empty. It is "the family register". Most of the genealogist's work is concerned with building up his family register, to display and share it in various forms.

It is a fact: truly orderly minds can maintain order in just about any environment, even a simple notebook will do. Unfortunately, most of us are not that methodical. But why should we bother about well organized registers?

It is all a question of economy. There are at least two reasons:

  1. After a few weeks of genealogical research, even the most chaotic individual will realise that it takes much longer to find a specific piece of information in a pile of random notes than in a sorted list of highly structured records.
  2. Serious mistakes are much less common if the facts are recorded in a standard rather than haphazard manner. Fixing errors after the fact takes an inordinate amount of time.
So let us discuss various documentation systems which help the less well organised souls among us to keep order in their family register.

I can already see the more obsessive compulsive among you gloating. Right away you go and invent a cataloguing system for your generic and family sections. Go ahead and do it, if you must. It might help you to keep your blood pressure under control.

As far as the family register is concerned, please wait! First you have to reach a strategic decision: to be digital or not to be digital that is the question. It might be nobler in the mind to compose your family register with sepia ink in gothic script on expensive vellum. But it is not necessarily the most efficient way to go. Now, I am not trying to sell you a piece of software. If you anticipate that your family register will never extend beyond some fifty or so relatives, pen and paper will do just fine. In the background I can hear some codger grumble: I maintain the 3,000 records of my family tree on the back of old visiting cards. - True - there was a time when logarithmic tables were calculated by hand, but nobody would do that today!

Choosing a genealogical software program is no easy matter. You might find some of the following sources useful in reaching a decision: Choosing Genealogy Software and Richard Wilson's Comparison of Genealogy Software Programs . For the unwary and computer literate there are also freeware programs available. A good commercial program will cost you between C$ 50.- and C$ 100.-. But keep in mind: after the initial learning curve it will save you hundreds of hours of boring work.

If you do decide to invest in a genealogical computer program, don't start by entering all the family data you have gathered to date. Practice on Genesis (Bereshit) ch.4. If you believe that you master your software, test it on Genesis ch. 10. Once that works, purge your file and start with your own family members. You will be amazed at how genteel they appear.

For those of you who have opted for the pen and paper method we have to discuss genealogical numbering systems: Genealogists have used numbering systems to impose order on their records for many years. There is really no need to invent yet another one.

If you are concerned primarily with constructing an ascending (ancestral) record system then the Sosa-Stradonitz System or 'Ahnentafel' is the only way to go. You assign yourself the number '1'. Your father gets number '2', which is twice the child's number. For the spouse of the father (in fact - mother of the child) you increment the father's number by '1', which assigns your mother the number '3'. For your father's father (your paternal grandfather) you double your father's number and get '4' and in analogy, your paternal grandmother gets number '5'. Reasoning the same way, your maternal grandfather becomes number '6' and your maternal grandmother number '7' etc. The system is straightforward. There is only one little hitch: you have to decide at the very beginning, whether you consider civil or biological relationships. It's one or the other. Once you start mixing them, you get a mess.

For descendants you have several choices. The one used most commonly in Jewish genealogy is the D'Aboville System. Here children are assigned the number of their parent, followed by a decimal point, followed by sequential numbers for the children. E.g. the oldest daughter of individual 3.4.2 is, the next son is and so on. In other words, the number after the last decimal point is determined by the birth sequence. You can imagine the clerical discombobulations, when suddenly a new offspring is discovered, whose birth falls between two previously known ones. And what will you do, if you suddenly discover the father of your ancestor "1"?

But there is no end to the complications: you may want to combine ascending and descending family registers. Yes, there are 'Combined Numbering Systems'. If you can follow the Theory of General Relativity, you shouldn't find the CNS too difficult. But, maybe I have made things too complicated. For you really need these numbering systems only in ascendancy and descendancy tables respectively. In your own record system you can assign each individual an arbitrary - usually sequential - integer, unique number. These numbers help you in linking the various family members with each other.

In our next installment we will start entering records for you and your close relatives.

* Wallace Stevens. The Idea of Order at Key West (1936)

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