First Steps — Digging Out from the Paper Pile


As they get deeper into research, most genealogists discover that keeping track of what they've already gathered is a large part of the hobby. Even with a relatively small family tree, the single file folder you began with can start to bulge with notes, copies of official documents, and family photos. So how do you keep everything organized and accessible as your tree grows?

The most important thing is to set up a system as early in your research as possible. If you track correspondence and file documents as you receive and copy them, it's much easier than if you have to go back through a bulging file and put everything in order. You'll also want your system to be fairly simple at first. With those ideas in mind, let's take a look at four ways to keep your papers from getting the best of you:

Get Everything in One Place

The easiest way to keep track of your family history is to make sure that it has a designated place; whether that's a binder or a whole file cabinet, the important thing is that all your papers are together. Start by grouping what information you have by surname — it's the most basic piece of information you can have about a family member, and provides a natural way to organize. If you've already done a bit of research, you may want to start a separate folder or binder for each surname.  

Once you've got your family names in order, take a look at what kinds of information you have about each surname and how much. You may want to go one level deeper and organize by individual families, or you could choose to separate what you have by the type of information — photos, certificates, and reports could each have a section within that surname. Take a look at the way you research and how you usually try to find specific pieces of information to determine which way is best for you.

This is also an excellent time, if you're using a genealogy software program like Family Tree Maker, to enter the information you have about each of your ancestors and note the source it came from. You may also want to start some kind of numbering system for your documentation to make sourcing easier. Numbering all documents sequentially works well, or you could combine that with a surname — for example, a birth certificate could be labeled "Brittingham-1." If you are working with delicate or original documents like family letters, make copies for your surname files and label those instead to avoid wear and tear, and keep the originals in a safe, separate location. If you have a lot of material to start with, you may also want to keep a simple log with the label name, a short description, and the location of each source document.

Keep Up with the Pile

So now you've got everything arranged in a way that works for you — how do you keep the papers in line after you return from a fact-finding mission at the local genealogy library? Show them who's boss and get your new information cataloged and filed as soon as possible. If you've come home with a folder full of census microfilm photocopies, label them according to the system you've set up and put them in the appropriate surname folders. You may want to clip them together and note on a Post-it that they haven't been looked at yet, so they're separate from other information you've already found.

This is especially important if you don't have time to pore over what you've found right away. When you go back to pick up your research later, you'll know where to start instead of having to dig through the entire folder. It also avoids the problem of just putting the new data in a folder of its own — that can lead to a series of dated "info I need to look at" folders. All of the new information will be with the family it's about, and can be looked at in smaller chunks as your interest in different branches changes.

What Goes out Must Come in — Dealing with Correspondence

More than most pastimes, genealogy is a collaborative effort. Whether you're writing to a cousin or to a county clerk three states away, tracking all of your pending information requests is crucial. Keep copies of all the letters you send — they act as records of what you requested when, and how much, if anything, you paid for it.

You may also want to keep a log as you send out letters. This can help you see at a glance which requests are still outstanding. You can set up a simple table by hand or on the computer, or print our sample. To open and print it, you will need the free Acrobat® Reader® from Adobe. If you need to follow up on an information request, your log will let you know when and where you sent it.

Expand Your Horizons — And Your Filing Cabinet

One final thing to keep in mind about your filing system is to stay flexible. The way you research now may not be the way you research six months or a year from now. If your system becomes unwieldy, take a fresh look at the way you deal with the information you find — new methods may call for new strategies. For example, you may have started your research with one or two primary surnames, but are now following up on several dozen. Or, even if you're only working with one, you may find out enough about your ancestors to warrant separate folders for individuals within a family. As the paper trail through your family tree grows, knowing where to find a particular document can be the difference between fun and frustration.

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This article was written by staff.

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