Organizing your Family History

Researching family history generates a mountain of paper as you find records. However, these records are treasures because they are critical sources of data about your family. Furthermore, organizing these records and their information is crucial to the success of your work because your future research depends on retrieving their details quickly.

The first step in organing your work is setting up a system to label your folders. Your method should be logical, easy to file a document, quick to retrieve, and easy to remember.

Most genealogists use factors such as surname, given name, record type, date, place, and other details to sort their information. Which factors they use as their primary and secondary information depends on personal choice, but surname and record type seem to be the most popular choices. For example:

Using “surname” as your primary factor and the given name as the secondary will show “Smith, Joseph” on the folder tab. So all documents are sorted by a person’s name, and the folders are stored in name order.

Using the “record type” as the primary factor will show “Census, 1930” or “Census, Smith” on a folder tab.

Some documents, such as census and passenger records, pertain to multiple people. Instead of filing a copy for each individual, many researchers use a combination of the two systems. For example, they save census and passenger records by record type and surname to eliminate the need for multiple copies. Then, they file the other documents by surname and given name.

Genealogists use two systems to store paper documents: file folders and ring binders.

They need a filing cabinet or storage crates to place the folders. Color coding the folders will help them file new documents and retrieve them when needed. However, it is difficult to add more cabinets when the cabinet is full. Storage crates are easier to add, but ehrn multiple crates are stacked to save space, moving the containers to find a file is cumbersome. Folders are also challenging to carry and use on trips away from your work area.

Ring binders are another method of storing paper documents. They are easily retrieved from shelves, especially if the spine labels are color-coded. Start with small (1”) or medium (2”) binders and expand to the larger (3”) size as needed. The binder pages are easy to flip through to find information, especially if you place the documents behind the tabs in chronological order. The small and medium binders are easy to transport to libraries and archives in backpacks, but they can become heavy as you add records. Nevertheless, most researchers find adding ring binders and shelving space easier than finding room for another file cabinet.

Go Digital

Eliminating paper and digitally saving your documents may be the system of the future. Digital files eliminate the mountain of paper and significantly reduce the physical space needed. For example, my 20 years of genealogy files use 132 GB of digital storage. I use my laptop as my primary storage unit and a 1 TB external hard drive to back up my files. These two devices are significantly small than a file cabinet or the twenty-ring binders needed to store the paper equivalent of my digital files.

I label my digital files using the same factors as a paper system, using surnames and record type as my primary factors and adding 3-4 secondary factors to the file name.

Using “surname” as my primary factor, my label will be “smith-joseph-census-1930”.

Using the “record-type” as the primary factor will show ”census-1930-smith-joseph” as the record label.

Once I type my file name, select my folder, and hit “save,” my computer will automatically place my new file in the order my naming system dictates. So, remember, once you decide on your system, be consistent so your files appear in the folders where you expect them.

Visiting libraries and archives will become easier when you use digital files. You can copy your pertinent files to a thumb drive to reference them using a computer at the facility. You can use the same thumb drive to save digital copies of what you find and transfer them to your computer after your trip. Going digital minimizes your physical space, and transporting your files becomes less challenging.

The main drawback of going digital is a computer crash where you lose the information on your hard drive. Therefore, making a backup copy is critical, and experts recommend backing up your files monthly as a minimum.

I add an essential step to my digital system. As I find my documents, I save a copy to my computer but then compile the information I see in the record into a summary for the individual mentioned in the document. I carefully enter the information into the summary chronologically, which helps reveal their story. I also include a document copy at the end of the summary. Adding the copy may seem like overkill, but I use this step to add the source citation in the label above the document. I need to add that data immediately to ensure I  do not forget it. I usually do not review the copy on my computer again unless I suspect a problem with what I entered in the summary.

Benefits of my digital summary:

  • It s a quick reference of the facts by putting all the information for the individual in one place to speed up future research
  • Is flexible when adding facts, stories, and pictures
  • It is a narrative, and all family members can understand it
  • It can be easily shared with family members or other researchers through email.
  • It saves paper, but more importantly, it saves the information in the records

The critical step in being organized is to develop a system that fits your needs and skills, then consistently use it. Also, do not be afraid to change your system as your skills increase and technology changes.


One Response to Organizing your Family History

  1. One practice that has helped me tremendously is beginning all file names with the document’s year/mon/day. This creates a timeline of events within the folder.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: