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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).



Many family historians find recording to be their least successful area. How often have we all seen the ‘back-of-the-envelope technique’!

How Not to Record It!

Arthur Kendall Bloggs married Mary S. Jones

9. 12. 25. London

What does this scrap of paper tell us?'
When research done? Not recorded
What was the source? Not recorded
Where did you find it? Not recorded
Name of husband? Not sure whether his surname is BLOGGS or KENDALL BLOGGS
Name of wife? What is her middle name? Especially with a common surname one needs to be as specific as possible about other details.
A Date? No, because the month is not written out (is it the 9th of Dec or 12th of Sept?) Neither is the century specified.
A Place? Which London? If it means London, England, this covers about 900 square miles situated in parts of five counties, so we need to specify the church, borough and county
What other information was recorded? Vital clues may be contained in a place of residence or a name of a witness etc.

How to Record it Properly

20 Jun 1982

East Peckham, Kent, England parish registers CMB (i.e. containing christenings, marriages and burials) 1558-1653. P284/1/1. Read at County Archives, Maidstone, Kent.
No gaps, faint in places but readable.
Searched for all DARTNELL and variants, JUPP, ALLINGHAM and RICHARDS. (see their files)

5 Dec 1995
Kensington, Middlesex, England census 1881.
RG11/25-29. FHL film 438806.
No missing pages, clear and easy to read.
Searched for all DASHWOOD, DARTNELL, JUPP, and any Charles WOODWARD. (see their files)

12 Jan 1991

Old Church, St. Pancras, Middlesex parish registers. Marriages 1813-1837. FHL film 416757 item 3.
Complete and readable except for 1821-1822 water stains, but could read all names.
Searched for all BLOGGS entries 1820-1832. Only one found.
1825 9 Dec Arthur Kendall BLOGGS otp bachelor + Mary Sophia JONES of St. James, Westminster by banns, by Philip Smith curate. He signed, she X. Wits: William Bloggs, Eliza Jones X

To preserve your own sanity, and so that others may follow after you, it is essential to record accurately and document your sources. Start right at the beginning by recording carefully on standard size sheets of paper, and record your sources meticulously.

The Five Essential Parts of a Good Record

Today’s Date

It may well be important, 10 years from now, to know in which order you discovered certain facts. It is terribly frustrating looking through a bunch of undated notes, so resolve now to date your work.

In genealogy dates and places are always written starting with the smallest and ending with the largest item. Dates are in the format Day-Month-Year. The month is written out as the first three letters only, and the year in a complete number since we work with different centuries. For example: 22 Aug 1975.

Citation of Source

This means complete and accurate details of the source, including:

  • Place
    This should be recorded beginning with the smallest locality.
    In North America: parish, town, county, province or state, country.
    In Europe: parish, town, county or province, country.
    In rural locations record the full legal description, for example:
    - NW ¼ of Section 5, Twp (township) 35, Range 3, West of 6th Meridian
  • Type of record
    Indicate whether it is a census, parish register, will, or whatever and whether it was the original (including film, fiche or photocopy thereof). If it was a transcript indicate what kind it was, the author and date of publication. Microforms (film or fiche) and photocopies are considered equivalent to viewing the original if they are provided by a reliable source such as an archive or library.
  • Dates covered
    State the dates covered by the entire volume that you were working with. You may well need to refer back later to check what it contained.
  • Accession or call number in holding archive or library
    This is the information needed by anyone trying to retrieve that record. As you work through it note the subsidiary piece numbers as you come to them, then you know which specific pieces contained which items of interest.
  • Where or how you consulted it
    Did you view it at an archives or a library, and was it a hard copy or microform? If the latter, give its number and also whose number e.g. FHL, National Archives.

Condition of Record

Records are rarely complete and perfectly preserved. Notes are often included in the catalogue description about missing years or poor condition. Note in particular as you read:

  • Were there any gaps?
  • Was the writing legible?
  • Were there water or mold stains, torn edges or ink blots on crucial pages?
  • Was there a tight binding resulting in parts being unreadable on a microform copy? (You can write or email the holding archives for clarification. Its identity will be noted in the catalogue description).

If you make no notes as to deficiencies in the records then someone coming after you (or yourself much later!) will assume that they were perfect.

Examples of how to record are given in Chart 43. If you quote your sources accurately and fully your work will be respected by others, not treated with disdain. The best current discussion of the whole subject of description of sources, with extensive examples, is Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace.

The Purpose of Your Search

Here you describe what you actually searched for:

  • What date range you covered
  • For what names you searched

Five years from now you will appreciate the fact that you wrote what you looked for; was it all BLOGGS entries, or only the Arthur BLOGGS? Similarly you need to note what sections and dates you covered; in this case only the marriages from 1820 to 1832. Later on you (or a later descendant) may need to return to this parish for more information. You will want to know whether you looked at all the JONES entries as well, and whether you did the christenings and so forth.

Naïve researchers plunge willy nilly into the source grabbing at dates and spellings as they come to mind and taking no note of what they have searched. These folks do a lot of repeat searches and often stop at the first possibility among the several which MAY be in the given record. Later they run up against inconsistencies and get frustrated because they make no real progress, until they learn to be more organized and thorough.

By all means look first at the spelling and date postulated from previous data, but this should be part of a pre-arranged plan of action. At home, make an alphabetical list of possible spellings (and be very creative about this when it comes to vowel and first letter changes). Write down a date range for each search, with a note of the order in which to search the individual years, for example from 1881 back to 1871; or 1820-1830 starting at 1825 and working outwards. Then at the archive draw up a simple table on your work page so that you may check off each spelling in each year as you read it. Results can be noted either in the table or below in a standard format with all details noted. You will accomplish far more and end up knowing whether you have covered all possible combinations of spellings and years.

What You Found - Exactly and Completely
  • In most cases make a verbatim transcript. A genealogical abstract of longer documents, containing only brief notes on the main genealogical points of interest, is allowable providing you include ALL pertinent information.
  • Copy information exactly as it is written and proofread before you go on to the next item, so that you have an accurate transcription. Interpretation, or what you thought it should have said, does not form part of a transcript. Unreadable items should be copied ‘as is’. Anything added that is not in the original must be indicated by [square brackets]. This includes tittles, those little lines and squiggles above words which indicate missing portions in old writing. The missing letters may be interpolated with square brackets.
  • Do not recopy! This introduces transcribing errors—make your first copy neat enough to keep.
  • Do not make the mistake of transcribing directly onto Family Group Records. You will end up with your interpretation of what was there, rather than a direct transcript. And you won’t know which information came from this source and which from others.
  • Never make up abbreviations for names when transcribing. Include a key for other standard abbreviations used.
  • It is wise to take the time to note all references to your surnames—they may supply clues later on.
  • Be sure to record every source that you have studied, even if you ‘found nothing’, so that you don’t repeat work later.
  • When recording individual entries, dates and places should be noted in correct genealogical format. Surnames are capitalized and all other details taken, in the examples shown in Charts 42 and 43, the marital status and residence of each party, a note that the marriage was by banns (not by licence), whether the parties signed their names, and the names of the witnesses and whether they signed. The name of the officiating minister may be important:
    a) If it is the same as one of the parties there could be a relationship.
    b) If he is from another parish this may indicate a place of origin.
    c) In multi-faith lists this may be the first clue to the bride or grooms’ religion, for further pursuit in church registers.
  • In other words, extract every morsel of information from the source! So many times it happens that a researcher doesn’t realize the significance of one tiny item now, but when they refer back to their beautifully complete transcript later on this item may be a vital link to consolidate a proof.


Each of these pieces of information is a clue which can lead you to further your research. For example, if the lady was a widow at this marriage then looking for her christening under this surname would be futile. Likewise, one would start the search for the christening of Mary Sophia JONES in St. James, Westminster parish rather than in St. Pancras. Following right along on this thought, there may be three JONES families producing children in St. James Westminster. If two of them have a Mary Sophia, which one is yours? Probably the family that also has an Eliza JONES, who was unmarried in Dec 1825 and the witness to the above wedding.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 11 March 2014, at 16:06.
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