> Back to BCG Learning Center

> From OnBoard—Newsletter of BCG

Barbara J. Mathews, CG, “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 and forward
• 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:
• Genealogical summary
• 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 records.

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 family treatments.

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 numbers.



1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000).


Barbara J. Mathews, CG

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.