When we start genealogy we know the persons who are closest to us in time so we are comfortable using software where each person record is a unique "conclusion" person. We create a person record for each real person as we add them, and then we add additional facts and events to those records as we learn more. This style of genealogy is called "person based genealogy."

When we get farther back in time we can no longer be sure about the exact persons that the evidence refers to, so we must collect evidence from as many record sources as we can, and only when we think we understand the proper set of persons and relationships that best fit the evidence, can we create the conclusion person records. This style of genealogy is called "record based genealogy."

In a nutshell, person based genealogy is when you create your person records first and add facts and events later. Record based genealogy is when you must collect the evidence first and only later, when you have enough evidence to make decisions, can you create the person records.

Today's software systems are based on person based genealogy. Every person record in a database is assumed to be a unique person, and if you discover that two records are the same person your immediate reaction is to merge them.

But when you get far enough back that you must use record based genealogy, you are faced with the problem of recording all the facts and events before you know enough to create the person records to attach the facts and events to.

How do you store the evidence you have collected before you have enough to confidently decide who are the real persons being mentioned?

Personally I use "persona" records for this, but there must be lots of other options. Many of the experienced genealogists here have obviously faced this issue and have come up with their own unique solutions.

The question is: How do you store evidence about persons, once you have reached the transition into record based genealogy, so before you know enough to create the conclusion person records that the evidence applies to? You HAVE the evidence. You don't yet know what PERSONS the evidence BELONGS to. How do you STORE the evidence so you can find it and evaluate during the decision process?

  • 1
    Great question, but there's a previous one on the same topic - genealogy.stackexchange.com/q/177/42
    – efgen
    Oct 17, 2012 at 3:47
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    Your question assumes a definition of "evidence" that not all will accept. I immediately ask "evidence of what ?" Unless you have a testable proposition in mind, what you have is information not evidence. It may or may not be relevant to the assertion that you eventually make. If you insist that what you have is evidence, then it logically implies the existence of a person or event of interest. You may choose to label a person with (very) incomplete identification as a persona (sic) but they are as real as every other person entity in your records.
    – Fortiter
    Oct 17, 2012 at 3:56
  • +1 for your excellent question.
    – lkessler
    Oct 17, 2012 at 4:51
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    @Fortiter, When you reach record based genealogy you don't know what information (facts about persons) you collect are going to turn into evidence about the real persons you are interested in. No matter what you CALL it, you have to COLLECT it before you can decide. Being pedantic and claiming that information before decision making is not evidence (information that you collect IN ORDER TO MAKE the decision) is IMHO pretty silly. Call it potential evidence if it makes your inner semantician feel better. Oct 17, 2012 at 10:48
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    @TomWetmore I admire your passion but I also admire consistency and am puzzled by (1)"I often call all information evidence, and feel justified in doing so by thinking of all information as potential evidence just waiting for the right question to be asked!" genealogy.stackexchange.com/a/45/70 (2) "I find this attitude that defining words is some kind of democratic process quite amusing, that we all get to choose what the words we use mean for ourselves." genealogy.stackexchange.com/a/1426/70
    – Fortiter
    Oct 17, 2012 at 14:30

10 Answers 10


Most genealogy programs maintain a list of sources. Each source can contain multiple source-details (which are misnamed as source-citations in GEDCOM). In a way, these are the individual pieces of information that you have found from that source. If you use that information in a conclusion, then it can be thought of as evidence for the conclusion.

In the list of sources, under each source, you can include the text of the source and in that, list all the events and people and places that piece of information pertains to.

If you had a "smart" program, it would and should allow you to link those events and people and places back to their conclusion events, conclusion people and conclusion places. Doing it that way, you'll have evidence-based data entry. Unfortunately, there are no programs I know of that do this yet.

Now your question is how to store the evidence if there is no conclusion person to attach it to. My answer would be to still keep it with the source data. You will have the text of the source, names and places and events and dates that you can search through when you need to. A decent genealogy program should be able to search through the source data for the information you're looking for, but again few if any do.

I would keep the data this way until I'm ready to use it. When I'm ready to clean up all my unreferenced evidence, I'd go through them one by one. I'd make a 3-way decision:

  1. If I believe the information pertains to one of my conclusion people, I'd add the events to that person and link the source as evidence.

  2. If the information does not pertain to any of my conclusion people, I would create a new conclusion person and add the events to that person and link the source as evidence.

  3. If the information may apply to a conclusion person, but I have my doubts, I will still add that event to my conclusion person, mark the surety as doubtful, add a comment explaining my opinion of the data, and link the source as evidence.

Basically, I will regularly go back and clean up my unreferenced sources. Until they are cleaned up, they will simply stay in the source information, unlinked to any events, people or places.

(Disclaimer: Tom and I have in the past had some very colorful conversations on the topic of where to store evidence and we've agreed to disagree. For more info on this, see: http://www.beholdgenealogy.com/blog/?p=805 )

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    I've upvoted because Louis's has well expressed one of the best ways, IMHO, to store genealogical evidence. Storing event information in sources is supported by GEDCOM, which means current software could use this approach so be able to share evidence via GEDCOM export/import. Personally I believe the persona approach (placing each item of evidence inside a separate persona level person record) has more advantages. Be that as it may, the purpose of this question was to bring out the different approaches experienced genealogists have come up with to solve the information storage problem. Oct 17, 2012 at 10:56
  • There are probably more smarts that could be added, but have you looked at gramps? It has searchable sources (search could be improved), you can attach media to a source, you can include source text, you can have "dangling" (unattached) sources, you can link a source to a person/event (any time after creation of source/person/event), and you can view what is referencing each source (e.g. I just did a search for sources with ref count of 0). Other than stronger search, I'd be curious to know what capabilities are still missing.
    – bstpierre
    Oct 17, 2012 at 12:34
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    An upvote for your parenthetical comment about the ubiquitous misuse of "citation" in the genealogical world! Oct 17, 2012 at 15:54

My approach has been to develop my own tool to manage assertions, sources, information, evidence and all the links between them and research subjects. Only when I'm confident that I've proven an assertion (be that the relationship between two individuals, or some 'fact' about an individual) do I transfer the relationship or 'fact' into my genealogy database, together with all the supporting sources and reasoning.

I found this approach easier to use than trying to coerce my genealogy database into supporting something it wasn't designed to do.

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    ColeValleyGirl, This might be called the Clooz approach, meaning the approach where you use a second software program in order to support the record and evidence gathering process. I would much prefer to use a single program for both my conclusions and my research. Frankly I think it is very easy to extend the current data models very slightly to get this capability. Oct 17, 2012 at 18:56
  • A tool for this can be very simple, like a text file or, more helpfully, a spreadsheet with columns for date, place, event, name, source, and various notes.
    – RobertShaw
    Oct 17, 2012 at 19:33

When I started, my research was person based. However, it quickly turned, in my opinion, into being record based. I first located the records to confirm, show conflicting information, or negative information about what I knew. But that first record and the records that followed, changed my approach to collecting records. Now I locate the records, then extract information about that person and any other person that might be in that record.

Example: I have a person and found a Census Record. That confirmed my Person Record, with dates and location. BUT, what that record also showed me was relationships within the household for people, dates, and places that were not in my file.

IF I understand what you are saying, that would NOT make the software that I use a record base application. I suggest that it does or can become a record base program, depending on how the user uses it.

I am looking for records. I can enter that record, regardless if there is a person of mine on that record. In fact, that record may become negative evidence for that person. 'Should have been in that record, but wasn't.'

Having followed your discussion and Louis' discussions before, I still think that the program I use can be BOTH and not one or the other.

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    Russ, for me it boils down this. If you find a record and it clearly applies to one of your person records, you can add it to the person's record directly. On the other hand, if you are further back in time and you find a record and you are not yet sure whether it belongs to 1) a person in your database, 2) a person who should be in your database, or 3) someone you are not really interested in, where are you going to keep that record until you decide which of the three cases applies? Where do you store your evidence (sensu Wetmore) before you know enough to add it to a person record. Oct 17, 2012 at 18:52

I'm very much a "person based genealogy" researcher at the moment, but I'm to the point where if I want to do much else I'm going to have to move over to "record based genealogy" so take this answer from the view point of someone about to make the switch.

I'm a Apple person, thats important because I use Macs, an iPhone and an iPad as my computing devices. To this end I've chosen to use the MacFamilyTree software. It's one of the two major mac genealogy programs. There is an iOS version that sync with my mac so I can take and work on my research on the go. This answer is specific to this software. So I was looking over the application trying to see how it would be used in a research first, person second scenario.

The application has Six forms of data entry: People, Families, Events, Places, Sources, Media and To Do's. I can enter Sources: Source Entry Screen They allow for a good bit of detail as well as allowing you to attach it to media scans of the original source if available. You can add as many note ad you need and label/color code the sources into groups. The source does not need to be attached to any specific person/event or family. If you have Media you can add additional information:

Media Entry Media can be assigned to any number of sources and have any number of notes. It can also be tagged to a location. It's a nice way to keep information about your original scans, translations, transcriptions, etc. There is also a general information bit that you can add what event type (adoption, illness, census, will, etc.) the media represents, if any. Media does not just have to be a single image, it can be a group of images, video, audio, pdf, etc. for one media entry.

To Do Entry The To Do list is just like any other To Do list. Each item can be assigned to one or more objects (Media, Source, Person, Event, etc.) so you can keep track of what you need to do where.

The only issue I'm seeing is that I can't create an event without a person first. So once there is enough information to reliably add an event, I would need to add a shell person to attach the event too.

Sorry if this read like an ad, I didn't mean for it to, it's just the software I know and use. There are definite shortfalls with this package, but overall its the best I've found for use on the mac.

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    Justin808, Nice description! The "shell persons" you describe are functionally the same as a "persona" records, that is, a person record that includes only and exactly the information about a single person that comes from a single item of evidence. Imagine what could be done with software that treated people records of this type as "first class citizens." Oct 17, 2012 at 19:05

I see the argument for personae, but I'm less convinced about the nature of the difference between person-based and records-based genealogy.

Ideally, all genealogy (and all historical research for that matter) should be evidence-based. One type of evidence is records. However, there are many other types including artefacts (e.g. headstones, family bible), recollections by other family members, family folklore, and even personal recollection.

Hence, I have records-based evidence for the existence of my parents, but I also have personal recollections too.

I feel that this naturally causes us to take short-cuts, and that's where the "conclusion person first" approach might originate

  • ACProctor, You are of course theoretically correct. All genealogy is record-based. But there is definitely a phase transition you go through when you are finally dealing with people you had never heard of before, and when the only way you can proceed is by gathering evidence from sources first. You have left the realm of the warm and comfortable, and entered the cruel and frustrating world of having to do difficult research. Oct 17, 2012 at 18:44
  • But like in Animal Farm, not all evidence-based datum are equal. Some evidence is solid, some less so, and others at best jello. I have used a number of classically person/tree oriented genealogy packages and none seem to deal well with the fuzzy quality of a lot of evidence. Jan 3, 2016 at 6:59

For me, the only logical way to do genealogy is to record observations, be they statements from living people, or documents in a system. The software should then assist in creating assertions based on these observations and create an hypothetical family tree automatically from the assertions. It should all be driven by rules and probabilities.

This is in stark contrast with all genealogy software that I have encountered where it's impossible to trace back the origin of a piece of fact. In fact, this issue is what stopped me from investing more time in genealogy research and I have waited for at least 15 years to see this issue adressed properly...

If done properly, such software would support a freely shared base of rules that can be applied to a collection of facts. Imagine how fun it would be to see the system drawing all kinds of conclusion from collection of observations and perhaps also suggest where I should focus my further research efforts.

Shared probabilities would be really nice; how trustworthy are certain sources? What's the correct approach to get the most amount of data from a certain source?


I've just left a long post on the other question mentioned already, What tools exist for collecting and managing evidence?

Computer tools don't seem to exist for the kind of source management I want to do. In a paper-based system I can index any assertion in any source document I have, thus making it easy to pull out whatever source material I want to examine before I reach my conclusion. The big problem with all of the pedigree-based software is that the software forces you to make a conclusion about what people are referred to in a source in advance of the evidence.

The other difficulty with person-based software is that it doesn't allow you to easily integrate information about the place in which people lived. I routinely collect information about the buildings that people lived in; the tax assessor's office has property record cards that show when the buildings currently on the site were constructed. If you correlate this information with street name changes (see for instance the lists on Steve Morse's One-Step Web Pages at http://stevemorse.org/ ), you can place families and people in context with far more detail than simply looking up an address and sticking a pin on Google Maps.

If you are working in a pedigree-based system, it is easy to make a note on a single person's residence attribute that says they might have been forced to move because their building had been torn down, but what if you are part of a large one-place study that is conducted by a genealogy society? How do you propagate that awareness -- that you won't find a set of people who were enumerated at a particular address in the 1920 Census at the same address in the 1930 Census because the building no longer exists -- to all the people in that database for whom it applies?

  • Right...it's like they need to make "Places" and "Events" first class citizens.
    – Dave
    Oct 3, 2016 at 3:33

With great difficulty! I totally fail to understand why there are no genealogy programs available that treat Events and Persons on an equal footing. Well, not really. First, LDS wants a lot of lineage linked names, and second, most people start this way.

But, if I were king, I would at top level have: Persons, Events, and Sources. Persons would be lineage linked to other persons, perhaps to mother and father. Persons and Events could be linked in a table which was not biased in favor of either persons or events. I.e. Events would NOT be subordinate to Persons. Sources could be linked everywhere. A lot more detail, but this is it at top level.

  • Yes, it can be done fairly easily. Several programs have done so, the most famous of which was Ultimate Family Tree, who even defined their own Event-Based GEDCOM. But to do so, there must be something gained. All I see it giving you is a list of events that still will have to be linked to their people and sources in order to have any meaning. I don't see any benefit of that. Instead, events can and should be attached to their source record. Sources should show the events they pertain to. These can then be used in a source/evidence-based methodology to develop your conclusions.
    – lkessler
    Jan 18, 2013 at 15:11
  • Do you advocate people be attached to their source record(s)? So why events? I agree that eventually one would link the people. However, part of my research workflow is to track neighbors, or people in the same county with the same surname, through censuses or other events. I have no idea what, if any, linkage exists between these names, and I don't want to have to pretend that I do. Yes. Events are as primary to me as people. And if/when I do figure out linkages, I don't want to re-enter data into a genealogy program. Jan 21, 2013 at 18:19
  • If/when you figure out linkages, you'll then have your conclusion people. Those are different than source people who are only "persona" until you prove them to be relevant. You don't have to re-enter your data, but you will have to add your conclusions once they are realized.
    – lkessler
    Jan 21, 2013 at 20:05

Note cards, paper clips, and rubber bands.

Each note card gets facts which are known to be about a single person (typically because they came from a single context such as a marriage record which lists name, home town, age, & spouse). You can write this in ink because it's nothing but evidence which will never change.

Make as many copies of each card as necessary.

Paperclip cards which you are pretty sure are about a person together.

Rubberband groups of cards together, using rubberbands of various strengths/colors to show how confident you are of the connection.

Create a summary card (in pencil so you can erase/change it) on top of each rubberbanded deck.

Unclick/band and reclip/band stacks of cards as your analysis evolves, updating the appropriate penciled summaries as you go.

Or a software program which does all this more efficiently...

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    Software programs are still not very good at using paperclips and rubberbands.
    – lkessler
    Jan 18, 2013 at 20:32

So far, I don't know how one makes the transition.

The question is "How do you store evidence about persons, once you have reached the transition into record based genealogy,...

Not to be too pedantic, but this portion of the question (from the OP) assumes that the person has already made the transition mentally. Most of the other answers are fine, but they address software and techniques to use once you have made the mental jump.

I've been using computer based genealogy software for about 20 years. All of the packages have been person or event oriented. I have not yet gotten my brain around how to make the transition.

So far, it looks to me to be a big deal.

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