My personal family history collection consists of correspondence, photographs, historical documents and family papers, family tree compilations and genealogies, research logs and reports. I've probably downloaded and/or obtained print copies of countless compilations, genealogies and/or research reports others have written.

Wondering whether it would be beneficial to index my Family History collection, and what ways there are in doing so?

Of note; I'm currently a FTM, "Family Tree Maker" user. I understand that the indexes are completed by the software. My inquiry is of any other indexing method(s) that are in use by say a Binder or Catalog collection in chronological order or by places, as well as any other creative sense.

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    Ezri, can you explain what your collection consists of. Are these books? Sources? Images? Something else?
    – user104
    Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 15:30
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    A software product will "index" your collection but maybe your requirements are different to that. There are many different directions that answers could take here so we need a little more detail in the question Ezri.
    – ACProctor
    Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 16:59
  • Spot on, sorry about the confusion. Feel free to tweek the question. Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 18:37
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    Thanks, it's much more difficult to ask the questions than it is to answer them. I appreciate all the assistance.: } Commented Nov 15, 2012 at 18:54

3 Answers 3


It sounds to me like what you want to do is catalogue your eclectic collection of 'stuff', which is really an archive. Think like a archivist. An index (finding aid is the archival term) is the end product of the process of archival arrangement, description and cataloguing. Advantages of a well described archive include ease of access and documentation of the history of the materials i.e context and provenance.

The full procedures followed by large archives run by professionals are probably overkill for a personal archive. Michelle Goodrum takes a practical approach to a personal genealogical collection in a series entitled '21st Century Organised Family Historian' (21COFH) on her blog The Turning of Generations.

Genealogy software such as Family Tree Maker is designed to record and present your research conclusions, which I do not think is quite the same thing as producing a catalogue. The nearest genealogy software gets to indexing is source citation.


A good software product would keep track of all those resources (i.e. papers, maps, photos, etc), and index much of it - thus allowing searches to be performed.

I think all products allow person entities to be indexed by their personal name, and sometimes by multiple alternative names.

Some allow your place references to be indexed. This implies that each referenced place is then a separate entity in your data (just like a person entity) and not simply some textual name such as 'Woodborough, Nottinghamshire, England'.

Indexing by event and/or date allows chronological analysis and the production of timelines.

Your physical artefacts (e.g. photos, letters), your sources, and your citations would probably be linked to the relevant persons, places, and events rather than separately indexed.

There will be some variation of what each product provides but this is a basic, workable model.

Unfortunately, I found that it would not index my own collection the way I wanted. As an example, consider a family letter that mentions several ancestors, places where they lived, and events in their lives. The physical artefact is obviously precious. A scan is not assimilated into your collection in any meaningful way. A transcription is better because it can be searched, but only via a plain-text search. Using a custom mark-up language, though, the entire transcription of the letter can be indexed and cross-referenced with the appropriate person, place, and event entities it refers to elsewhere in the data.

This requirement eventually became my STEMMA research project, and the mark-up became its structured narrative feature.

  • This is intelligent, I absolutely love the work you've done with STEMMA. Bravo, "ACProctor;" I would like to share your STEMMA research project with my Genealogist friends on (G+) & (fb), would that be okay? Thanks again, awesome answer.: } Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 1:13
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    Thanks Ezri. That's fine. It's worked out better than I anticipated but I'm not finding enough time to write all the software I need. FHISO is currently a priority for me because the whole industry will eventually benefit from it, whereas STEMMA is just a non-commercial research project (although I'm looking to publish some of its innovations in a gene. mag. very soon).
    – ACProctor
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 10:51

Every personal collection will be unique, including that there will be some "standout" materials. Authors might want their personal works featured and easy to navigate; those who have inherited family papers from others may want those materials to remain intact (as a collection within a collection; especially if other work has cited those other collections).

Link follows to a real world archival collection for which the finding aid has been published online.

McKarns Family Papers - MS 1024

Bernice McKarns (1911-2005) was closely associated with and conducted research about some of the families to which I am related. She actively corresponded mostly with cousins whose work predates mine, but also with me.

There are eight (8) main categories to the organization of her materials represented as the "Series Description." These are: Correspondence; Subject Files; Literary Productions; Legal Documents; Scrapbook and Scrapbook Materials; Maps, Charts, Diagrams, Graphs, Lists, etc.; Printed Materials; Photographic Materials.

What follows in the finding aid is a list of each box and the identification of each folder in the box. (The papers in the folders aren't indexed in the finding aid.)

To give you a little feel, though, in the "Correspondence" box, there are 34 folders. There three boxes that constistute "Subject Files" and/or "Literary Productions." ...

P.S. Thank you Bernice ...


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