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.
One could classify amateur genealogists' filing systems in three broad
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
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.)
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.