Advice, Methodology, Sources and resources

Tips for creating a good family tree chart

When you create a family tree chart you are communicating – with your future self and with others. The effectiveness of this communication depends on how well you create your chart.

I used to work for the Society of Australian Genealogists as their archives officer and I still volunteer in the archives, processing donations of family histories. A key part of that process is making the donated family histories accessible to researchers. Unfortunately, the quality of most family tree charts makes that really difficult to achieve, because the creator paid little attention to what they might mean to future readers. So I have written this article to share my insights with you.

Creating a chart

You can create a family tree chart in many different ways. Here are the main ones:

  • Hand-drawn on paper
  • Fill in a template on paper or as a fillable computer file
  • Generated from family history software
  • Generated from family history charting software or generic charting software
  • Online trees
  • Generic programs such as Excel, Word and PowerPoint
  • Design software such as Canva.

None of these are inherently better than the others in terms of the quality of the chart, although charting software does prompt you to include useful information and helps produce a neat and consistently formatted chart.

The type also impacts on the survivability of a chart. Pencil-drawn charts on thin paper, for example, do not survive well and this affects legibility.

Extract of a fan chart generated by family history software showing the ancestors of Winifred May Saywell (1911-1999)
Extract of a fan chart generated by family history software

Things to consider

A good family tree chart must be relevant and appropriate to your purpose, as discussed in my first article, Different charts for different purposes.

A good family tree chart also needs to fulfil the principles of good communication:

  • Clarity and legibility
  • Consistency
  • Accuracy
  • Context
  • Precision
  • Readability
Extract of family tree in the Collier Diary from the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists Item 2-151, showing the family crest and four names.
Extract of family tree in the Collier Diary held in the archives of
the Society of Australian Genealogists Item 2-151

You can learn about what makes a good or bad family tree chart by examining charts that others have produced. Do they communicate well? Are you able to interpret the chart and learn about the family history of the subject?

Checklist

Label or title

A good family tree chart has a title or label that describes the subject, the creator and the date. This information helps the reader understand the content of the tree, and how it relates to the family history. It also provides a timeframe, which helps place that version of the family tree into a temporal context and assists with version control.

A title or label also provides information that can be included in a source citation, if you chart is used by another researcher.

Without a label or title, the value of a family tree chart to other researchers is vastly diminished. This is particularly important if you are contemplating depositing your chart with an archive, library or family history society; or sharing it with other researchers or family.

Family tree chart label 'Ancestry chart'
Not a useful label!
Family tree chart label 'Ancestor Fan of Barry Hawkins'
A more useful label as it identifies the focus person in the tree, but it could still be more informative

Standards

If you use standards that are commonly used by other genealogists, then they are more likely to understand your family tree chart.

Example standards:

  • Chapman codes as abbreviations for place names
  • Surnames in capitals (this is common but not universal)
  • Use maiden names for females
  • Date formats (day month year, with all four digits for the year)
  • Abbreviations, for example, see the list at Ancestry
Extract of Chapman codes for England
Some of the Chapman codes for England

Key

It is a good idea to include a key on your chart even if you use common standards, as the reader may not be familiar with the standards or may not be bothered looking them up.

Numbering

The usefulness of family tree charts can be improved if the people in the chart are numbered. Numbering helps the reader distinguish between individuals of the same name and you can also use it to cross reference the name in the chart to other materials and reports that document your family history.

Family history software provides unique identifier numbers for each person. There are also genealogical numbering systems that are familiar to most genealogists.

Details

My first article discussed the information that you need to include in a chart, such as names, dates and places, so I won’t repeat that here other than to emphasise that a good chart includes the right information and the right level of detail for the purpose of the chart.

Context

The value of a family tree chart increases considerably if it is associated with supporting material that provides context. This context helps the reader interpret the chart and, similarly, the chart helps the reader interpret the supporting material. Part of that contextual material might be a description of the purpose of the chart.

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