Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Does your family tree have a house style? Whether you publish your tree publicly or privately, it does, you know, have a "look."

Publishing houses maintain such house style guides for freelance writers who are hoping to have their articles or manuscripts put into print under their commercial imprint. Style sheets can include quite a bit of detail on just how a company wishes to have its material appear. Use of certain fonts, amount of spacing between lines or in margins contribute to the "look" that makes a product distinctive, but style sheets speak to much more than those outward appearances. Decisions reach down to what might be thought of as the most nit-picky of details: representing numbers in alpha rather than numeric form for everything two digits or less, for instance. Writers wishing to be published by such companies had best follow those many directives.

But that is the world of commercial publications, and this is just me and my little ol' family tree, you might be thinking. Whatever does this have to do with genealogy?

Perhaps it is obsessive of me to insist that my tree have a standardized appearance. But the thought is not original with me. It has long been traditional in genealogical circles, for instance, to include the device of printing surnames in ALL CAPS. For many, standardized requirements also include the European manner of recording dates, with the day listed first, followed by month and then year.

The range of decisions needing to be made to allow your tree to look standardized is far-reaching. Do you, for instance, include abbreviations for states or countries, or write the words out in their entirety? How do you handle recording such locations of birth or death when the borders are constantly changing? Do you include titles when you enter an ancestor's name, or relegate those entries concerning education, occupation or nobility to a "notes" section?

Though there are some aspects that have been traditionally adopted, across the board, for genealogical communications, there are many details that remain simply a matter of personal choice. No matter what the choice, though, it makes for a much cleaner appearance—and, in many cases, much less confusion—to make your decision on an element and then stick with it.

I am reminded of the convenience of adhering to these decisions, now that I'm doing some spring cleaning on my family trees. Going back, taking care of shaky-leaf hints or gleaning names from old obituaries, I'm reminded that it's the little habits in deciding on the "look" of my trees that keeps those trees streamlined enough to allow my eyes to scan through printed reports to easily locate information I'm seeking. No helter-skelter look for my trees! With everything standardized, it does seem to put my eyes at ease when having to look over large reports.

Granted, this is a personal opinion. But it's a decision I'm glad I followed, despite the initial extra work. It's really no different than the behind-the-scenes work a publishing house goes through before bringing its product to market. And it warrants that "job well done" feeling, too. Workmanship in our own genealogical research is just as important, and deserves as much attention to detail, as any other publication. After all, we're doing this so it will last, aren't we?


Above: "Rest Along the Stream, Edge of the Wood," 1878 oil on canvas by Impressionist landscape painter Alfred Sisley; courtesy Google Art Project via Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Yes, I have made several decisions about the look of my tree. Now some of those decisions get on my nerves. For example, I read somewhere that we should include "United States of America" or "USA" as part of a location because the name of our city or state might exist elsewhere in the world (Georgia comes to mind - USA and Russia). So I do. However, when I compiled my Jollett book and copied/pasted trees into Blurb, I had to manually delete "USA" from every blasted ancestor. Why? First of all, the book was for family, not worldwide publication - family would know I meant "USA." Second, it saved space - a single "USA" could mean rolling over to a new page. Here is another example: I chose all caps for the surname. When I uploaded a tree from Family Tree Maker into Legacy Family Trees, Legacy by default must not like all caps. I keep getting that red exclamation point alerting me to the "error." I like a consistent look, but sometimes I question my own decisions.

    1. Thank you for sharing these experiences, Wendy. And really--how could you have known, up front?

      I'm particularly surprised about the all caps Legacy experience, especially given the usual protocol among genealogists to use that capitalization format.

      I suppose the "USA" routine would seem redundant in a book published for family--if your family had been in one country for centuries. In our case, I knew it wouldn't be long before our Irish immigrants would be border hopping while shopping for a good place in which to settle down. But hey, saving space? By all means!

  2. I just printed some generic trees out one was a Martha Stewart and filled them in with pencil:)


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