Handling People with Multiple Names in the MacGenealogist File System

People change names for many reasons. What’s surprising, at least when new to genealogical research, is that it’s relatively common for a person’s name to change during their lifetime. Since it’s common and adds complexity to our practice, I devised a solution with respect to storing computer files. There are three predominant problems that it eliminates.

The Problems

There are countless people in your genealogy with more than one name. Trying to remember all the name variants and which folders contain the files for each is unnecessary. The computer excels at such things.

Storing duplicates of each file for all the name variants wastes disk space and creates a maintenance problem.

Files relating to one person, but scattered across folders can cause confusion, duplicate effort, and conclusions based on incomplete information.

The Solution

The MacGenealogist File System deals effectively with changing names—both person and place names—by making use of the power and elegance of a little known feature of the Macintosh operating system: aliases.

Aliases are pointers to either files or folders. The details of their utility is covered in a series of screencasts called Creating a Genealogy Folder System on Your Mac.

The alias feature makes a couple peculiarities of genealogy research irrelevant. The first is that genealogist tend to work backward in time. This often results in birth names being unknown when records of a person are first encountered.

The second is that documentation is gathered, created, and stored as we conduct research. These factors combine to create the set of problems described above.

Fortunately for us, we have already switched to the Macintosh, so we can take advantage of aliases with just a little instruction. Use of aliases in the MacGenealogist File System make the actual location of files almost meaningless anyway because they appear everywhere we expect them to be.

The method for storing files for a person with multiple names is to create a folder named with the person’s last known name, create alias folders that point to it for each former name. Each folder and alias is stored in the corresponding surname folder. Easy peasy!

When we follow this approach we have a folder structure that allows us to drag and drop files into folders that have the same name as the person in the file we’re storing. For example, imagine having a scan of a newspaper clipping about a distant, female relative. It refers to her using her maiden name. You don’t have to remember or lookup her married name in order to store the file; simply drop the file into the aliased folder that bears her maiden name.

How-To

Having written this much I’ve gotta say that it’s immediately apparent to me why I prefer to demonstrate these computer techniques in screencasts.

Anyway, here are the detailed steps to for this technique:

  1. Create a new surname folder if one does not already exist for each name variant
  2. Create a new folder in the surname folder that corresponds with the person’s last known name
  3. Make the folder name follow the MacGenealogist File System naming technique for people
  4. If other names are known, create one alias for each (select the original folder in a Finder window and press Command-L or select File | Make Alias from the menu)
  5. For each alais folder, change the name to match a name variant (e.g. birth name)
  6. Move each alias folder to the respective surname folder

If these instructions are unclear, viewing my screencast on using Finder aliases for changing place-names may help. It’s not directly about people’s names, but the steps for creating and renaming aliases are the same.

The Next Step

It’s that easy and the only rule to remember is a simple one: put  files in which ever folder bears the person’s name and it will actually reside in the folder bearing their most recent name while appearing in every other alias folder.

Now you can begin to harness the elegant power of aliases. Pick an ancestor for whom you have files that aren’t yet stored this way, follow these instructions, then marvel at the magical simplicity.

Comments

  1. Steve O'Connor says

    I have been implementing your file/alias system. Everything works great except when I try to make a copy of the My Family folder to a removable drive. Of course the alias maps to the original file on the originating volume rather than the new copy.

    I wonder if there is a way to make the aliases operate like relative urls would operate rather than absolute.

  2. Steve O'Connor says

    I’ve decided to apply your system using DevonThink. It works great and will make the information portable. The “Replicate to” tool works just like an alias, but it streamlines the operation considerably. It will also export all the folders and files for use with other programs.

  3. Martin Entwistle says

    Before I found your site & excellent instruction & advice, I was always of the opinion that females were best referred to by maiden name – their “constant” name, which obviously helps to directly identify their line of the family.
    You advocate using “most recent name”, which for a multi-married female could bear no resemblance to the names I am interested in.
    Is there any reason why I would be better advised to drop my structure & follow yours (which incidentally is fantastic in every other way).

  4. Randy Spain Romanchek says

    Ditto Martin’s question below: An answer was not posted below his question. Thank you.

    Martin Entwistle 14 Jul 2009 at 10:01 AM
    Before I found your site & excellent instruction & advice, I was always of the opinion that females were best referred to by maiden name – their “constant” name, which obviously helps to directly identify their line of the family.
    You advocate using “most recent name”, which for a multi-married female could bear no resemblance to the names I am interested in.
    Is there any reason why I would be better advised to drop my structure & follow yours (which incidentally is fantastic in every other way).

    • says

      Hi, Randy and Martin.

      I apologize for not making my rationale clearer in the screencast. Here’s another go:

      I use whatever name is known for each person; folders are there for each if you use aliased folders as I demonstrate in the video. The choice I make about using the maiden name is with respect to the “real” folder (not the aliases which point to it). It’s a personal preference and of no consequence to the folder system. You have a system, so stick with it.

      —Ben

  5. Pat Sheldon says

    The folders are there for storage and link of contents to Reunion, so Ben’s way you have both the maiden and married names in one reference, unlike the Reunion index, which I set up by maiden name before reading this technique. I’ve been spending some time making folders for my people and it is really making sense. Next step will be to load them with the various materials I’ve accumulated, which are roughly grouped into folders of pdfs, jpegs, census info, by major family surname. It was starting to feel very overwhelming and disorganized. I think with this system of naming and aliases it will be organized and efficient.
    Assuming publishing family cards to the web will remain the same, though if links are broken I might have to reupload.

  6. Holly says

    How do you advice I deal with a relative who has at least 6 iterations of her name. She was born with one surname, married at least twice, and legally changed her first name as a young adult. In addition, she had two different spellings (depending on her mood) of her first name (Lulu and Lula).

    I’m at a loss in Reunion. (I’m also new)

    Thank you!

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