Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Genealogy Switchboard

When I last posted during the holidays, I promised a post explaining my method of managing and cataloging genealogy sources. I referred to it as my "genealogy switchboard." This is because it tracks not only my different sources according to category, date, etc., but it also shows me where (in which trees) each source has been entered, and for which relatives I have (or lack) specific kinds of sources. In this way, it resembles a kind of central hub that gives me an aerial view of where I am in my research.

I operate this tool principally via Google Sheets and Docs, which are free for anyone to use and accessible anywhere that has internet access. But you can also use the sheets/docs of Microsoft Office, or through comparable software, on your own desktop. (I use these as backups.) Basically we start with a document that will serve as a key for categorizing different kinds of sources. Mine looks something like this:

Genealogy Record Inventory Key
BA = Baptism Record
BC = Birth Certificate
BU = Burial Record
DC = Death Certificate
DR = Divorce Record
I = Interview Transcript
L = Land/Probate Record
M = Marriage License/Certificate
N = Naturalization Record
O = Obituary or Death Notice (Newspaper/Funeral Home)

Actually, I have many more categories in my own key than are listed above, but this abridged list will suffice for the sake of example. And it isn't necessary to use exactly my symbols and categories. One can adjust as it's convenient. We all deal with slightly different kinds of records on a consistent basis. (I must also say here that, while I track census and various register records for particular people, I don't include them in my inventory or key. I'll say more about this here later on.)

Every one of my self-contained, non-census, and non-parish record documents has its own Evernote page devoted to it (you could use another cloud service or PC folder if you like), and each has its own catalog number from my inventory key that reflects both its source kind AND its number within the total collection of my sources.

So, for example, my system lists my paternal grandfather's death certificate with the designation 247-DC62. What does this mean? It means that this source document was the 247th total document that I cataloged in my system, and it was the 62nd death certificate. That's it. By this simple means I can track the total number of sources I own, the numbers of particular kinds of sources, and approximately when in the cataloging process I entered them...all in a quick and efficient way. Next, I list this number in the first page of my inventory spreadsheet, and track multiple categories of information associated with its source.

Let's do a hypothetical example. Say that your grandfather's name is John Smith. He lived 1913 to 1998, was born in Detroit, Michigan, and died in Chicago, Illinois. You have a death certificate for him, and this is the first source you're cataloging in your own "switchboard." You would tag this source with the designation 1-DC1 (or something very close to this). You would then enter it into the source catalog page of your spreadsheet (the first tab). You can track all kinds of information for your sources. I do something like what you see below. Here's the first part (Columns A through D):

Here are some other columns I use to the right of A-D:

And still more:

You can track even more information as needed/desired. To the right of these columns are other columns which I use to track where I have uploaded/cited each document. I do so because, perhaps like some of you reading this, I keep multiple trees online, in addition to my main one through my desktop software. (I use RootsMagic for my main tree, hence the "RM" designation.) This allows me to easily see what I have entered in RM and various places online, and it allows me to do and check off even small tasks for when I have only brief time for genealogy. (FSFT stands for the FamilySearch Family Tree.)

If a document is not posted to a particular place yet, I just leave that cell blank. (I don't actually use Geni that much, so I picked on it for my example here. Sorry.)

The second spreadsheet tab is the one I use to track particular kinds of records for particular people. Continuing with our hypothetical example, here are a few rows and columns:

In this little cross-section, one sees that there is no birth certificate collected for either Chester Smith or his wife Dorothy. This wouldn't be surprising, since birth certificates (as opposed to baptism or birth register documents) may be non-existent for people of their generation. One may leave cells for such elusive (or non-existent) records blank, or one may fill them with "NA" or a similarly appropriate designation. Notice, too, that since Chester and Dorothy were married, they share their marriage certificate record. So the catalog number of 7-M2 (7th total record, second marriage license-certificate) goes in both of their cells. Sometimes cells will have multiple catalog numbers in them, as in the cases where multiple marriage records or multiple obituaries exist for the same person.

The kinds and number of records represented in this way are limited by what the user chooses to track. I trace dozens of kinds of sources for each person I have at all researched. Coming back to source records that are not self-contained, such as censuses and registers, I may not give them catalog designations in this system but I do mark in the cells where such sources for each person may be found (like FamilySearch, Ancestry, etc.) that I can access, like this:

As we all know, occasionally our ancestors will not show up in census records we have searched, for whatever reason. A placeholder description like "not traced" seems appropriate.

There are more details I could go into, but this is basically what I do to keep track of my genealogy sources and research progress. I have used it for 2+ years and am finding it to be highly efficient and satisfying. Whenever I obtain new source materials, I enter them into this matrix. When I want to research different parts of my heritage, it's easy to see where I have left off last time and where to continue working next.

A possible weakness of this system is that it is sometimes tricky to search the first tab's total catalog when you're looking for specific record entries and you've already entered in thousands of rows/columns of info. I usually just do a document search (Control-F) and enter a search term, and this helps me to quickly find what I'm looking for. This is easy enough, but some people may want to keep more source-type-dedicated tabs to avoid this if they choose to do so. Having that second tab that tracks sources for each person also helps to find things in the first one. It just depends upon what the "Switchboard Operator" wants to trace and how easily. One advantage of my system is that it is highly customizable and easy to add moving parts that don't mess up the pre-existing parts.

Perhaps some day I'll do a YouTube video that walks the viewer through everything in a fuller and more visual manner. But I hope this relatively short introduction to my system was interesting, even if you choose not to adopt it yourself.


  1. If I was just starting out, this would be a system to consider, but given how much I already have and not recalling in which I order I received everything, it seems daunting. That said, I can see how this would be a useful system and I do have items broken down into folders for Baptisms, Marriages, Births, Deaths etc. ... plus, I've been meaning to devise a key similar to yours. Thanks for the inspiration :)

  2. Do you write the Record Identification Number on the documents or use it to name the files for digital documents?

    1. I save a digital copy of every document I own to its own page on Evernote, to which I also copy the catalog number for that record. I have my entire Evernote library backed up to OneNote. I have backups of the source document files themselves saved to my hard drive, but I don't include their catalog numbers in the file names. However, I do back up my spreadsheets on my PC hard drive and on an external drive every month. This is beside having digital copies of nearly all of my documents saved to multiple online trees and to the FamilySearch Memories tool. With all of this, I feel pretty secure about not losing data.