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Overheard in GenForum: Genealogy 102 - How to Organize My Stuff
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

March 14, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am an advanced-beginner in genealogy researcher. I have collected a critical mass of stuff, and feel like I don't want to continue doing research until I can organize my materials. I also want to make sure I'm entering references to my documents, and don't want to start creating references until I can link the refs. to the location of the documents. If each piece of paper (or set of pages copied from a single source) referred to just one surname it would be fairly straightforward to create one file per surname. But short of making several copies of the same piece(s) of paper, I can't think of a system for filing that clicks in my head that doesn't involve a great number of dead trees. Perhaps I should just get over it and make the copies, but it seems like there must be a better way. Would folks please tell me how they organize their stuff and/or suggest on-line or paper sources that discuss the pros and cons of different filing and referencing systems that work together? -- Donna

A: No one tells us when we get interested in tracing our family tree that we will need to move out of our house because of the amount of paper that will soon take up residence. Part of the problem is that we hesitate to throw anything away because we are sure we will need it later on; that the individual found in the record will indeed turn out to be an ancestor.

There are a number of different organizational systems out there, and I am sure some more yet to be created. The problem is that we all think and behave differently and as such we are attracted to different methods of controlling the paper monster.

The best organizational system is the one you will use.

Surname and Place

Many people use surname folders or notebooks to control their copies and records. Some of them will combine the localities where the families lived in the organization of the records.

You have already mentioned the one problem with the surname systems, and to be honest all of the systems have a drawback or two. You will find that when records deal with more than one family or surname that you find yourself wondering how best to handle it. In some instances that may require additional copies for filing under the other surname.

If you got with the surname approach, you will first need to decide whether you will file the papers in a folder or put them in binders. The binder approach has been incorporated by William Dollarhide in his Managing a Genealogical Project, published by Genealogical Publishing Company. His approach has you organizing first by surname and then by place of origin. In this system the first thing he stresses is to control the size of the paper. Because the pages are being inserted into a three-ring binder, generally the size of the paper is 8.5x11. Records are filed in the binders alphabetically by surname, then place of origin. Then to have some order, you add a page number. Somewhere on the document you would then find something that looks like: Standerfer/Illinois/25.

Of course, one of the draw backs to putting this information into binders is the shelf space. Those binders quickly fill up a shelf, and few of us have all the shelf space we would like. Of course, this system can easily be adapted to go in folders.

Dollarhide's book goes into detail and includes blank forms you can use in setting up and maintaining this system. You may want to incorporate sheet protectors so that you never have to three-hole punch any of your documents.

Surnames and Record Types

One of the more recent organizational systems to come out is that of Sharon DeBartolo Carmack and it is described in detail in her book Organizing Your Family History Search, published by Betterway Books.

Like Dollardhide's system you are organizing by surname, but she has added the record type and she puts all the records in folders. A folder may be named Standerfer - Marriage Records. These are then filed alphabetically by surname and thereunder by record type.

This system relies on two forms, both of which are included in the book for you to make photocopies of as you need them. The first is a form used to abstract records for those records you don't have a photocopy of. Of course, for hard to read documents, even if you do get a photocopy, I suggest that you take the extra time to abstract the information while you are looking at the microfilm. So often after I get home and am trying to decipher the faint photocopy I have wished I had taken the extra five minutes when I had the film in front of me.

The other form is a table of contents/index of sorts to the folder. On this form you list the date of the research, the repository, the source citation, and the results. She has also included columns for tracking if records were ordered and how much they cost, so that the next time you need to order from that repository you will have at your fingertips the cost of the record.

Family Folders

The method I use relies of a folder for each couple on my pedigree chart. The folders are named for the husband and then they are filed alphabetically. Because I found I had three different Smith lines and two Bailey lines, I opted to use those colored folder labels. For each generation of a given line, I use the same colored label. This allows me to organize alphabetically and still make sure am grabbing the right folders when working on a given line.

Each record in the folder has an accompanying Research Planning Sheet. This form helps me by recording the critical information about the source along with the goal of my research in that source. It sounds like a lot of work to fill out, but ten years down the road when I am returning to a line, I find that the information I have recorded on the research planning sheet helps to remind me where I was in my research at the time and perhaps why I chose to look in that given source.

Also found at the front of each folder is the Research Inventory Sheet. This is similar to the table of contents form used by Sharon Carmack in her system. It gives me an instant view of the information filed in that given folder.

The first question I get about this system, which I learned when take a genealogy class from Brigham Young University, is what do you do with the individual you descend from. I file record generated from the marriage up to the death in the folder for that individual. I file any records for the individual prior to marriage in that of the parents' folder. You will not need to worry about not knowing the parents' names, because usually when you find records of the individual as a child, at least one parent has been identified.

In Conclusion

These are just three of the systems that are currently available. Each has pros and cons, and it is up to the individual researcher to decide which of the cons is unacceptable. In each case you will find that you have overlap in your records. In many cases, if it is just a single page, another copy is the best way to handle it. If it is extensive, such a probate file or a detailed family history, then you will probably just want to put a page in the other folder directing you to see the folder in which you did file the pages.

You may find after reading more about these different systems that you like a little bit of each one and you will go off and create your own system. That is fine. The important point is to make sure that whatever system you do go with is one that you will use. If you don't stick with the system then you are no better off than you were before.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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