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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Avoiding the Paper Trap
by Rhonda R. McClure

July 8, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

I want a show of hands now. How many of you have piles of copies and letters from fellow researchers sitting on tables, on filing cabinets, even on the floor? Come on now; be honest. We all have a few. However, if you haven't yet put together some kind of organizational system, you could soon find yourself spinning your wheels and duplicating research.

There are a number of articles and books devoted to organization, filing, and project management even in the genealogical community. It is a good idea to look at the different methods. The most important aspect though to any method is that it makes sense to you and that you plan to stick with it. After all, if you don't, you are right back where you started from with piles everywhere and no idea where you are going with your genealogy.

There are any number of organizational systems. The key is that whatever you go with must work for you.

Why Organize?

There is a major misconception about computers where organization is concerned. People think that just because they are now doing their research on the computer that they no longer need to have copies of records, research logs, plans for upcoming research trips, and results from past research. All of this is as important if not more so now.

With our computers we have access to more information that often times comes at us faster than ever before. Between CD-ROM's, family history web pages, and GEDCOM files there is the possibility of being bombarded by new individuals on our family tree. Now I know that we are all wishing we had such problems, tons of new names to add to our database. But it is possible that even if you do receive them, that you may not know what you have because you will be swimming in papers.

How to Organize

As I mentioned there are different ways to set up some type of system. Some systems include file folders. Others use three ring binders. And one that I read about last year used 3x5 inch note cards. Recently new systems have been discussed that include using your computer. If you have a notebook computer these newer systems are more apt to appeal to you.

I have combined two systems. I have file folders. In fact, I have one folder for each couple on my pedigree chart. They are filed alphabetically by the husband's surname and then given name. I use color-coded file labels to keep track of my different lines. This became necessary when I ended up with two different BAILEY lines and three different SMITH lines. And to this day, none of these lines connect to each other. By using the different colored file labels, I can use red for one BAILEY line and blue labels for the other line. This way when I go to pull out all the files on that line, I know at a glance which ones I will need despite their being intermixed alphabetically with the other line.

What's In Them Thar Folders?

Opening my folders will reveal right up front an inventory sheet of that folder. Every search, regardless of results (both positive and negative) gets put into the folder. The type of search and the results are included on a research planning sheet. As each planning sheet is filed in the folder, it is recorded on the inventory sheet. This allows me to skim the inventory sheet and see just what I have done on that family.

Copies of records are placed behind the research planning sheet and a note is made on the sheet that I do have copies. And of course for those awful moments when I bombed out with the research, I have put that on the planning sheets as well.

Combining with Computers

With the advent of notebook computers that are as powerful as desktops, it is a lot easier to take a large portion of my research with me. I have always used research logs to track my research as a whole. My logs are not family specific, though they usually have some theme to them. For instance, I may have included the three surnames in Moultrie County that I am concentrating on at that time. I have since computerized the research log. This can be done using either a database or spreadsheet program.

While I confess I still take spiral bound notebooks with me to repositories, I find myself abstracting and transcribing more and more to the computer and my genealogy program, and other software applications that may or may not have been created for genealogists.

Remember that there really isn't a right system. The right system is the one that works for you. And it works for you if:

  • You can find past research in a flash.
  • If you are not duplicating past research
  • If you do not waste time at repositories determining what you should be doing.
  • You always have the key pieces of information with you when you are traveling.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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