Another Sort of A to Z: Your Genealogy Filing System

by Donna Przecha

Genealogists are always buried under stacks of paper. While the copy machine can be a great benefit to genealogical research, it can also be a curse as it is a temptation to copy everything. However, once you get home with all this wonderful material, something eventually has to be done with it.

Make no mistake — the ultimate organizer for your research is a genealogy program. However, a "paperless society" is a great fiction. You really don't want to record and then destroy that copy of the 1850 census or your grandfather's death certificate or even the photocopy of the description of the Midwestern town where your great grandparents settled. Something has to be done with the paper detritus.

Filing Systems

One could classify amateur genealogists' filing systems in three broad categories:

  1. Haphazard. "I know I have that document somewhere." (The pile under the window is from my trip to Salt Lake City. The pile on the corner of my desk has printouts from the IGI. The box on top of the filing cabinet is correspondence from my cousin in Tennessee.)

  2. Informal. "I can probably lay my hands on that document in 5 or 10 minutes." (Grouping information into categories that are meaningful to the user.)

  3. Precision. "I will consult my index and find the exact location of the document in a minute." (Each document is numbered, indexed and filed by number.)

Each researcher has to come up with a system that is comfortable for him or her. Hopefully everyone will move beyond method #1, but many will never be comfortable with #3. Since every family is different, it is impossible to devise a ready-made, one-size-fits-all system that everyone should follow.

Files or Notebooks?

The first thing you need to decide is the basic physical form for your filing (the shoe box under your bed is out) — filing cabinet and folders, notebooks or boxes. You can accomplish the same thing with notebooks or folders, but notebooks have several advantages because the pages are firmly held in place. If you drop a folder, you usually have to start all over. A dropped notebook seldom opens and even when it does the papers usually stay in order. When working with a file, the natural thing to do is physically remove a sheet you need to consult. Then it can be laid anywhere and easily mixed in with other papers and files. In a notebook it can be consulted without being removed. You can have several notebooks open at once and nothing will be misplaced, but if you open several files, chances are some of the papers will end up in the wrong file. Papers in files can be kept under better control by using a two hole punch and metal fasteners. Different groups of papers can be kept together in a file using these or clamps.

You will probably use a combination of storage methods; while most of your work is in notebooks, you might want to keep forms, correspondence or general information in file folders. Then special original documents that you don't want to punch holes in or fold, are probably be best stored in an archive box. You can also put your original documents in scrapbooks using acid free plastic protectors and envelopes. With scanners and copy machines it is very easy to make copies and, if necessary, reduce the sizes so they fit conveniently in your working notebooks or files.

First Step: Decide on the Primary Classification

There are descriptions of several genealogy filing systems on the Internet. Your first step when choosing a system is to decide whether you want to organize your material by surname, geographical location or type of document (census, certificates, maps, land documents, correspondence, etc.) Any type of breakdown can have subdivisions from another category — i.e., file by surname, then place or file by place, then type of document.

Most people seem to feel that the first logical division of material is by surname. Some start off with notebooks or files with the surnames of four grandparents. Others make up notebooks for all major surnames plus another notebook with miscellaneous surnames on which little material has been gathered. Your initial organizing approach will depend on how much material you already have accumulated. If you have several boxes, you will need several notebooks to start. However, if you are just beginning, one small notebook is sufficient.

If you have several families who lived in one area for several generations, you may find the surname system is not the most efficient. When I did my husband's Polish line, I examined several parish records and each had several family surnames which I recorded all together. I ended up dividing this research by parish rather than surname. I don't think I will find any other records on these people and being able to see all family names and how they interacted with each other was more helpful than isolated each surname.

Informal vs. Precision

The systems described so far are what I call "informal." The difference between informal and precision is similar to the difference in how a grocery store displays its wares as opposed to how a library stores books. If you go into a library to find a specific book, the quickest way to find it is to go to a catalog so you can find the unique number under which it is kept. Then you can go directly to the shelf for that number and find the book. If you go to a grocery store to buy chicken bouillon or cauliflower, even if you have never been in that store before, you will be able to find these products within a few minutes. If a grocery store were organized like a library, using a precision system, all the items would probably be arranged on the shelves by their UPC numbers.

The precision system involves numbering each document. William Dollarhide describes this system in detail. He separates information by surname, then geographically by the place where the event occurred. This can be broken down as needed — country, state, county or even township. The material is filed randomly within a section and is numbered as it is added. So page 24 of material relating to the Johnson family in Ohio would be Johnson/OH/24. On the back of the family group sheet of the applicable person, you would note the source of the information as being Johnson/OH/24.

Professional researcher Joan Lowrey uses a similar system for her correspondence. Each correspondent is coded according to the first letter of the last name, then a number — B001 would be the first person with a surname beginning with B, etc. Each sheet of each piece of correspondence from that person is then numbered in order.

The advantage of this system is you can put this reference number on the event to which it applies and be able to instantly find the supporting paperwork. The disadvantage is you need to maintain some sort of index system. If you are looking for the birth date of Martin Smith you probably don't remember it was in a letter from Ann Jones. A program such as Clooz could be used to index material filed by number. Research Data filer (RDF), an old DOS program that came with earlier versions of PAF, also is well suited to this task. If your computer program stores sources in a separate area that can be printed and searched, you could probably devise a system for keeping track of your reference numbers there.

These systems were devised before computers and, in my opinion, are more complex than we need now. If you correctly document your information in your database, most items do not need further references. If your source is the 1910 U.S. Census with the state, county and page number or enumeration district, it really isn't too important that your photocopy is Johnson/OH/24. Numbering documents, especially original material, does make it easier to locate and under any filing system you can add document numbers where they would be helpful.

Getting Started

No matter what concept appeals to you, the important thing is to get started and organize your material in some way. How many times do you really want to spend an hour or two looking for a piece of paper that has suddenly become very important in your research? Any system is better than no system and any system can be revised.

About the Author
I began genealogy in 1970 when we were living in Ogden, Utah for a short time. I was immediately hooked when, on my first visit to the local Family History Center, I found my great-grandparents in the 1850 Ohio census. I have been researching ever since on my own family and for others. I soon recognized the value of computer programs for keeping track of the data. I was a founding member of the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego and editor of the newsletter. I have written a third party manual on ROOTS III and, with Joan Lowrey, authored two guides to genealogy software. Using ROOTS III and WordPerfect, I have written several family history books for others, but have yet to stop researching long enough to complete my own family history!

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