Jan 262011

The most important aspect of organizing a collection of digitized photographs and documents is the naming convention used to reference each item.

Using Names

Genealogical research presents a problem in that names of individuals are not always known with certainty. You may not yet know an ancestor’s name. If you do, you may not yet know their full name. Names can also change. You may learn the correct or preferred spelling, or you may realize the name you have is a nickname rather than an actual name. As you continue your research, you may find their actual name is completely different from what you thought.

There are multiple ways to refer to an ancestor depending upon the focus of your research. Should the photograph of grandmother and her family be filed under her name, or that of your great-grandparents?  Should her childhood photograph be filed under her maiden name, or under her name from a second husband?

Using Family and Individual Numbers

Most genealogy database programs assign a number to each family in your family tree. Individuals are also numbered separately. One could use such numbers to refer to digital evidence files. But as with names, you may find the ancestor you thought was a child of one family actually belongs to another family. There is also the problem of changing family numbers when a child gets married and starts his or her own family.

Using a Reference Number

I decided to use an arbitrary reference number to identify each piece of evidence. At first I tried to think up a complex numbering scheme that categorized each item according to a number of criteria. For example, the number:


was composed of several fields, where the each field held some significance. 0100 might mean the type of item, like a birth certificate. 00023 could be an individual’s number in my genealogy database. 000123 could be a sequential serial number, and so on.

Being a perfectionist, that scheme led me to procrastinate. Not only is it time-consuming to categorize a single piece of evidence according to several criteria, but the discipline required to look up the appropriate codes and properly increment each count is onerous.

The easiest solution is a simple consecutive number, like so:


There’s only one thing to remember, and that’s the last number I assigned so as not to assign a duplicate number.  I add leading zeros to make a six-digit number for consistency.  That makes it easy to know the number is an identification number.  It also assumes I won’t ever have more than a million items of evidence.  A sure bet I think.

Still, the perfectionist in me wanted to sort like items so they would be assigned consecutive numbers as a set. For instance I wanted to group all birth certificates together, then number them consecutively. Of course months later were I to add a new birth certificate, it would have to be assigned a number not contiguous with the others.

As I went through all my items of evidence I had to force myself to just assign a number, without attaching any significance to the value of that number.  Yes, an older item might be numbered after a later item. Yes, just when you thought you collected and numbered a group of related items, another one would turn up to throw off any preconceived notion of numerical order.

My advice? Just assign the next-available number. The number itself serves only to identify a particular item of evidence, nothing more.  It is much easier to refer to an item by number than by any sort of classification or description.

There are of course some subtleties involved in assigning numbers. A couple subtleties include numbering identical items that exist in different formats and deriving new items from an original one. I will address these next time.

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