Structural Elements of a Good Genealogy
- Newsletter of the BCG
Barbara J. Mathews , "Structural Elements
of a Good Genealogy,"
OnBoard 12 (January 2006): 1-2.
A formal genealogy is a research tool, much like an encyclopedia.
It uses a structured treatment of genealogical information
to convey family relationships over several generations
and to conﬁrm individual identities. It is not the
story of someone’s life or a comprehensive history
of a family. Current standards focus on the writing and
presentation of information. In addition, there are typographical
elements that we as writers choose. Both sides of this
coin, structure and style, are important in developing
a successful research tool for future genealogical researchers.
As with all writing, I prefer to begin by understanding
the needs of the reader. In the case of genealogies, identifying
the reader is very easy: we are it. In order to meet our
needs as genealogical researchers, we have created several
formal structural elements for genealogies. Once you see
how each element supports the researcher, you may ﬁnd
the elements of the formal genealogy much easier to understand.
Researchers perform three basic tasks when using a genealogy:• Search
for speciﬁc individuals
• Trace one line backward
• Photocopy family treatments, the title
page, and essential background information.
To help the researcher locate the person on the page visually,
the ﬁrst appearance of each adult head-of-household
is set apart typographically, often in boldface. This occurs
only once in the family treatment, in the very ﬁrst
paragraph—not at every appearance of the name. Continuing
to boldface names after the initial appearance could easily
be called “screaming yellow pages;” such treatment
can be more confusing than helpful to the researcher.
The genealogical researcher works from one person’s
entry to that person’s parents and children. To accomplish
this, a good genealogy contains a family numbering system.
There are several acceptable numbering systems, but two
have gained signiﬁcant popularity. The older one
is the system used in the New England
Historical and Genealogical Register. This system provides a unique Arabic number to
each household—that is, to each descendant who is
parent of a family. The system of
the National Genealogical Society Quarterly provides a unique
Arabic number to all individuals, whether or not they become
parents. With these systems, the researcher can use that
Arabic number in a list of children to locate that child’s
later appearance as an adult, and possible head of household,
whose detailed life story is then presented.
Consistent Family Treatments
By seeing each family treated
in a consistent way, the researcher has to learn only once
how to decode family information. That lesson can then
be applied to all other families in the genealogy. The
BCG Genealogical Standards Manual1 also provides specific
information about formal genealogical compilation style.
Appendix G identiﬁes three elements in each family
treatment of a compiled or narrative genealogy:
• Life story
• Child list
The genealogical summary paragraph is the ﬁrst
paragraph of the family treatment. All of the vital event
information for the descendant and his or her spouses goes
into this paragraph. Many genealogies of a hundred years
ago have death information buried deep in the biographical
text. On the other hand, many computer software programs
place spouses’ vital events in separate paragraphs,
again making birth, marriage, and death information harder
for the reader to locate. Placing the vital event information
in the genealogical summary paragraph makes it easier for
the researcher to locate essential information.
A discussion of the lives of the adults in the household
follows the genealogical summary paragraph. While computer
programs often organize these discussions chronologically,
a topic-by-topic discussion also works well. The topics
in a family treatment often include military service, land
ownership, evidence of occupations, and probate and estate
Be sure to point out which documents contain evidence
supporting family relationships and include citations to
the records. Sometimes a birth record will name the child’s
parents. Maybe a marriage record is missing, but the daughter
and her husband are named in a will or estate distribution.
As a writer, be sure to discuss explicitly this important
evidence for relationships. It is the primary purpose of
a formal genealogy.
At the end of each household treatment is the child list.
Again, at the ﬁrst appearance of a child’s
name, a typographical format is used to make it stand out
to the eye. This can be done using bold type fonts or capitalization
and varies from style to style.
Support Complete Photocopies
Footnotes and references are
on the top of our personal lists of important items as
board-certiﬁed genealogists. The Standards Manual
states that citations should appear either at the bottom
of the page or as endnotes. However, it is best to put
the endnotes at the end of individual families rather than
at the end of the book. By using this approach, we make
it easier for the genealogical researcher—no matter
how much of a novice—to include citations when photocopying
Finally, include a few items that make it easier for
the genealogical researcher to identify and cite your
work. Put your title at the top of each page. Also, avoid
dropping the page number from the ﬁrst page of
each chapter or section. Place not only the title but
also the author, publisher, location, and year on the
title page itself.
If you include these structural and stylistic elements
in your genealogies and carefully cite your sources,
your work will serve your colleagues and clients well
over the years to come.
Searching for Individuals
For most researchers, the gateway
to a large printed genealogy is the index. A good index
includes not only all names, but also the maiden and married
names of women. It is possible to include with each name
identifying information such as years of birth and death
and—for descendants—superscript generation
1. Board for Certiﬁcation of Genealogists, The BCG
Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing,
Barbara J. Mathews , CGSM
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
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