Excel and family history are natural partners

Excel seems to be made for family history. It is designed to manage large amounts of data and one thing we can say about family history is that it generates a lot of data!

Let’s see…. If you had 5000 individuals in your family tree with just the basic data for each one (two names, birthdate and place, christening date and place, death date and place, burial place and date, and one source for each of those), that’s 20 bits of data; plus say five events for each person, with age, type, date, location and one source, that’s another 25 bits of data; some certificates and images for each one, with sources, another ten bits of data; alternate names, cause of death and identifier, add another five…. say 60 bits of data for each person, that makes a total of 300,000 bits of data in your family tree. And that’s a conservative estimate, as many of us have a lot more than five events per person.

One of the key reasons to use Excel in family history is that it not only stores a lot of data, but it has numerous ways for you to manipulate that data. This means that it is a really important tool for analysing your data and solving family history problems. By having a lot of data in one place, you can play around with the data and see patterns that you wouldn’t notice if your information was just in a family history database, a word file or a paper file. Plus, Excel lets you have thousands of columns and rows, which means you are not limited by what can fit on an A4 or A3 page.

GenerarationsGenealogyExcelexample

Excel is great for research plans. The sort and filter features allow you to create subgroups of your data by where the records are held, which tasks are incomplete, by the location of events and so on. It is also great for timelines and lists of references or photographs. This example is an extract of the table I use to track how and when each of my ancestors arrived in Australia.

I will be running a workshop on using Excel for family history at the Society of Australian Genealogists on 28 July.

Cite your sources

I have a photograph of my great great grandparents that I found on Facebook. At least, I have been told that it is a photograph of them but it was posted without a citation so I do not know where it came from, when it was taken, who took it – all those details that would convince me that it really is them. I keep the photograph because it is the only one I have, but it bothers me that they may not actually be my family at all.

generationsgenealogy_willCiting your sources is important if you want to share your family history with others, so that they can trust what you have found and so that they can take a look at the records themselves. It is important for your own research for the same reasons. A source citation also makes it easier for you to take a second (or third) look at a source because, let’s face it, we rarely understand a source fully the first time we look at it. How many times have you copied a page from a source, then realised you needed the page before or after it? How many times have you transcribed a handwritten document or taken notes from a source, then gone back to your notes later and found that they no longer make sense?

If you do not cite your sources because you do not know how or it takes too much effort, then here are my tips:

  • If you use family history software, learn to use the source citation features.
  • Unless you are writing for a publication, do not worry too much about whether it complies with APA, Chicago, Harvard or other formatting styles – you just need a citation that you and others can understand!
  • The general rule is that a citation has four main elements – Who, What, Where and When. Analyse each source with these questions and note down your answers. The order doesn’t matter very much, but the author usually goes first and the date usually goes last.

Who wrote it or created it? Who published it? What is the title? What format is it (a book, a certificate, a microfiche etc)? Where was it published? Where is it stored? When was it written? When was it published?

  • Include as much information in the citation as you would need if you wanted to find it again. More is better….
  • Many online repositories and websites, such as Ancestry and NSW State Archives, provide suggested citations or guidelines on how to cite their sources.
  • If it is a source that is often found in libraries, consult a library catalogue and copy their citation.
  • If you want a handy guide with examples of the main types of sources, try Noeline Kyle’s Citing Historical Sources: A Manual for Family Historians (available for purchase at sag.org.au).

History revealed by an illuminated address

Illuminated addresses are hand-illustrated manuscripts presented to a person to mark an event or to celebrate a person’s achievements. Typically contained in a leather-bound gold-embossed folder faced with red silk, they contain hand-written text surrounded by a wide decorative border, illustrations, a statement of appreciation and signatures of the presenters. The term ‘illuminated’ derives from the use of gilt, but many addresses use gold or bronze paint rather than gilt. Illuminated addresses were popular in Britain and Australia from the 1850s to the 1930s, with a peak in popularity in the 1880s and 1890s.

General consensus appears to be that illuminated addresses were derived from illuminated books and manuscripts in medieval Europe. Australian examples commonly contain native flora and fauna – a trend which was also evident in art and buildings at that time.

Illuminated addresses were presented in a ceremony and were often accompanied by a purse of sovereigns and an announcement in the local newspapers. They had an important symbolic role, creating and reinforcing social links, and generating expectations of reciprocity.

Bean addressThis illuminated address is in the collections of the Society of Australian Genealogists. It was presented to Dr J. W. B. Bean Esq. M. D. of South Kensington by members of the Medical Magazine Club in Waverley New South Wales on 14 May 1914.

In later posts I will be exploring the details of this object and the life of Dr Bean, to demonstrate how objects can contribute to family history.

Are you just starting your family tree?

There are a lot of websites with guides on how to start your family tree, but let’s be honest. Most people do not start researching by reading guides – we choose a name of a relative and we Google it. Or we type our surname into the search box of a genealogy website. If we are lucky, we may get a piece of information that is clearly our family but usually we get a massive amount of information that makes little sense and we do not know what to do with it. The internet has made outstanding contributions to genealogical research but it has also had the downside of increasing our expectations of instant results and increasing the usage of inaccurate information.

So, if you are just starting out, can I suggest a little preparation before you jump on the internet? Grab an A4 piece of paper and use this image to draw a basic family tree.

family tree

Next, add in siblings – yours, your parents and your grandparents’ siblings. Then, between each couple, write the date of their marriage. Finally, add the location for each date (e.g. born 22/3/1985 Dubbo Australia).

family tree2

If you do not know any of these facts, add a ?  If there is any doubt about the information, add a ? next to it. For example, if you haven’t seen your birth certificate then there is doubt about your birthdate. Do not be surprised or worried if you have a ? next to every bit of information.

Before you start trying to trace your line back to the distant past, you must have a solid foundation. Your first goal is to fill in any gaps and collect evidence to remove any doubts about the information. Start by talking to members of your family. As you find evidence to support the information, you can remove the ? from the diagram.

Enjoy!