Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Place Names in Your Genealogy Database

The reason I absolutely "love" and appreciate the APG mailing list is that genealogy issues are brought up and discussed in a relatively civil manner by experienced and professional researchers. Even the simplest question can elicit many comments over several weeks.

As an example, a post about "Use of 'County'" was sent on 15 November, and 5 days later there are 45 responses so far. The list has discussed many of these, and I've added some of my own:

* What locality distinctions should be made in genealogy software and in genealogy reports?
* Should you put the word "County" or the abbreviation "Co." in your database to denote counties?
* Should you put the word "Township" or the abbreviation "Tp." in your database to denote townships?
* Should you add the word "Town" if the town is a distinct entity from the township (e.g., as in New York)?
* How do you handle independent cities (e.g., St. Louis, many in Virginia)?
* How do you deal with identical town and county names when the town is not in the same-name county (e.g. Des Moines is in Polk County IA, not in Des Moines County)?
* How do you handle a common town name in many different counties?
* What about church names, cemetery names, street addresses, etc. in the first place location for births, marriages, deaths, baptisms, burials?
* How do you handle locations where the county boundaries have changed? The record you want may be in the old county.
* Should you put the name of the colony or state, and the larger governing entity, at the time the record was produced? What if there was no government at the time (e.g., at sea aboard a ship, or fur traders in the Midwest in the 1700's)?
* What about locations where the county entity has been eliminated (e.g., in Connecticut) but earlier records were deposited in a county entity? Should the county be listed anyway in order to identify a general physical location?
* Do you abbreviate state names (e.g. CA for California)?
* Are you consistent with your locality naming practices?
* Should GPS coordinates be added to the locality name?
* Is the GEDCOM standard for place names (town or city, county, state, country) obsolete?
* Should genealogy software allow you to pick and choose what locality entities you want to print out on genealogy charts, genealogy reports and books?
* What will the latest genealogy software, that interacts with a set list of locality names to obtain maps for your databases and reports, require - will they demand a set standard? Will each genealogy program have a different standard?

Some people say "It's my database and I will do what I want with my information." Others say "you may not be able to find non-standard formats in a genealogy database."

Apparently, genealogy software makers conformed to the GEDCOM standard for a long time so that the output could be submitted to the LDS Ancestral File database (according to one poster). Now, some software (TMG was mentioned) has up to 10 fields for locality information, all of which can be searched. Some commenters would like to have "metadata" where there is only one searchable field with all the locality information.

In my own databases, I have tried to standardize on Town/City/Township, County, State, country (when not the USA). That's not perfect by a long shot, and I know it, but changing it now means a lot of non-research work. For example, some of my typical localities look like

* Medfield, Norfolk County, MA
* St. Michaels and All Angels Church, Hilperton, Wiltshire, ENGLAND
* Delhi Township, Norfolk County, Ontario, CANADA

However, the records of many of my ancestors in Medfield MA are in Suffolk County records, since Norfolk County was formed in 1793. I really should modify that locality to read -

* Medfield, Suffolk County (now Norfolk County), Massachusetts Bay Colony (in New England), ENGLAND

Likewise, if the date for my Delhi, Ontario locality was before 1840 or so, it should read:

* Delhi Township, Norfolk County, Upper Canada (now Ontario), ENGLAND.

One thing I have throughout my databases on FamilyTreeMaker is my own shorthand source notes with the locality, like "(VR, 246)" "(MA VR, 123:345)" "(Probate Record)" "(Birth Cert.)" "(christening)" that tell me that I have a vital record or some other record to support the date and location. Way back when I first started, I wanted to be able to see what source I had for a record without printing out my PAF facts and notes. Frankly, I would hate to give that up! I'd love to have another field in the genealogy software to make a short source note like that so that it's visible in my genealogy reports or family group sheets without using footnotes or a source listing. FamilyTreeMaker puts a little indicator in the Source button next to the locality now, but it just says you have a source, not what it might be.

I really don't want to be forced into a box of standard localities - but in order to use the next generation of software I may have to be. I just hope the box is big enough for me to include a locality like these

* 290 Central Street (back bedroom), Leominster (city), Leominster Town, Worcester County, Massachusetts, United States of America.
* Evergreen Cemetery (Lot 7, Section 45, Block 17), Leominster (city), Leominster Town, Worcester County, Massachusetts, United States of America (GPS Coordinates: Latitude: 42.5333, Longitude: -71.7492).

Perhaps a data convention like [local detail], [standard locality name], [source detail] could be generated to cover many of these issues in the new genealogy software.

Like I said, I really love and appreciate the APG Mailing List. It makes me think about genealogy issues and helps me determine what I should be doing in my own research.

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