Controlling the Chaos

Exactly how much chaos you are attempting to control will largely depend on how long you have been researching and building your family tree. If you are fairly new to genealogy, then chances are you are utilizing mostly online and other electronic resources. If however, you have been engrossed in filling out your family tree for sometime, you will likely have a mountain of paper records in your collection. Regardless of which category you might fall under – paper, electronic or a combination of the two – each presents their own unique challenges.

Although it’s always a good idea to have hard copies of your family records as back-up, if you are currently using a web application or software package to build your family tree, then you likely have few paper records to contend with. However, if you began your genealogical research back in the days when microfiche was king, and visits to the archive were a must, then paper records you will have, in abundance. Since you are unlikely to trip over or be buried by an avalanche of your electronic records, let’s put these in a desktop folder for the moment and explore how to best manage the paper records in your collection.

No doubt you have already applied some sort of organizational schema to your records. Great, but, will it stand the test of time? If you have documented your family history with the intention of passing it on to future generations, will the manner in which you have organized the collection make sense to others, or will it be akin to a dog’s breakfast? This is where making use of a few recognized archival standards will come in handy. The first one we will look at is arrangement.

There are 5 levels in archival arrangement:

1. Fonds

2. Series

3. Sub-series

4. File

5. Item

Don’t worry too much about file and item as you don’t really need to be this granular when it comes to arranging your own collection. The first three are where we want to focus our attention. If you have ever visited an archive, and being genealogists most of us have, you may have come across the term Fonds. Without getting too technical, a fonds is basically the sum total of all the stuff you have gathered to create your family tree/history. This is your highest level of arrangement. It is also the biggest. No doubt you will have accumulated research materials representing several branches of your family tree. This is where your second level of arrangement comes in; each branch becomes its own series. As we all know, each family branch begets even more branches, enter the sub-series. If you applied this type of arrangement to your own records, it might look something like this:

1. Fonds level: Smith Family History

2. Series Level: Branches

a. Mother’s Family

b. Father’s Family

3. Sub-Series:

a. Maternal Grandparents

b. Paternal Grandparents

As you can see, archival arrangement lends itself quite well to the organization of your genealogical records. If you have developed an organizational method that has worked particularly well for you, please feel free to share.

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One Response to “Controlling the Chaos”

  1. Pat Jeffs says:

    You’ve enlightened me.
    In thirty years of family history work I had never figured out what “fonds” were. I could only relate it to its Latin root and knew it meant something about “depth”. So to me fonds have always meant records that are down in the depth of some official archive–items that would take so long to come up to the desk that I wouldn’t have time to look at them at that visit.
    If your family history research has been hampered by family commitments and distance from archives, you will understand why I have always run away from “fonds”.
    The sooner more material beyond BMDs and censuses get on the net, the better.

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