A few months ago, a friend of mine handed me her family tree on a disk. At first I was really excited about the project, but then I opened the file. It was a conglomeration of information she downloaded from various web sites and imported into a genealogy program. It was a complete mess. There were major problems throughout the file, but what got on my nerves most was how dates, names, sources, notes, and locations differed from one entry to the next and sometimes within a single entry. There were many times when the way the data was entered into the file made the data worthless. I became increasingly frustrated and spent hours trying to get it into some kind of usable form. I realized that this is a common problem in genealogy, so I have put together some tips for entering your data that will hopefully keep your information easy to interpret and stress-free for you and those who use your work.
Entering a date seems like an easy enough task, but it can be done incorrectly. Generally, it is suggested you write a date as day, month, and then year (e.g.15 May 1895). Don't use all numbers as this can cause a lot of confusion about whether the date was May fourth or April fifth. Other problems with dates include the Julian calendar, double dating (our ancestors way of dealing with the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendars), the Quaker calendar, and abbreviations for month names. For more information on all these date related problems see Kip Sperry's excellent article, "Time to Take Note: The 1752 Calendar Change" .
Names are essential to genealogy research so it is very important that they are entered into databases correctly. This can be difficult when there are alternate spellings or names for a person. Many people lump those in with the known name of their ancestor so they end up with something like Robert John (Bert) Beard or Barth as their ancestor's name. If you have more than one first or last name for a person, or a name with different spellings, pick one to have as a primary name. This should be the name that appears most in trustworthy records. The alternate names or spellings should go in your notes. You should also decide how you are going to denote Junior and Senior and other suffixes and prefixes.
The area where I saw the most mistakes on my friend's file was the location name. You should always write out the complete name of the location in the same order: city, county, and then state. State abbreviations aren't a good idea since many of them can be misinterpreted. For example, the abbreviation AK (Alaska) is often interpreted as being for Arkansas (AR). Writing out each name completely will eradicate any confusion.
Another important thing about locations is to use the original name of the location. If you try to look in Marion County and it didn't exist or had different borders at the time your family was in the area and they were actually in Hancock County you aren't going to find much. This is fairly common as borders shifted and places got new names over time. To be accurate, you should put the original name in the entry and any changes and additional information in your notes.
Documentation is crucial. Documenting your research helps you and others find the source you gathered your information from. If someone looking at your research can't find a source you refer to, it won't be of much help to him or her. There are many different acceptable ways to document your research. That is why being consistent is so important. A good resource for those who want to know more about documenting your sources is Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills.
This may seem like pretty simple, basic information, but how you enter your information into your genealogy program of choice makes a difference to those who try to use it. Being consistent in how you enter your data is the best and easiest way to combat misinterpretation of your file.