When I was growing up, I was like all the other children of my time, hearing the story of Hansel and Gretal. The two children venture into the woods and leave a trail of bread crumbs so that they can get back out. A genealogist's research is much like that trail into the woods, a forest of family trees that is.
Of course when it comes to the forest of the family, not only do we need a trail of bread crumbs showing how we got where we are, but we also want a trail leading us to what we have yet to do. Organization is that trail of bread crumbs, and it goes both ways.
Don't get lost, get organized.
Are You Organized?
Many genealogists when asked if they are organized, will hem and haw as they stall and try to come up with an answer. As they are thinking, visions of the piles of photocopies that can be found all over their office dance in their head.
Actually organization goes much further than just the photo copies we have made and the documents we have received. Organization reflects how we do our research. In a perfect world, we would have organized our research as we went along but, for many of us, this has not been the case. And because many of us feel we are not organized, the idea that we need to be now gain control of our genealogical records is overwhelming.
There are three areas where organization is essential if we want to improve our methods of research and make progress in our family history. We must organize our past research. We must also organize our present research. Finally, we must organize our future research.
The Past, Present and Future
Organizing our past research can seem like an insurmountable task. Instead of tackling the entire one, five, ten, or fifteen years of research, set aside a few minutes each night that you work on your genealogy and file a few of your copies. If you haven't set up a filing system yet for your documentation, there are a number of systems out there. Some use binders while others use file folders. Some are arranged by surname, while others are by family or married couple on a pedigree chart. You will want to ask others how they organize their research. Read up on the subject. There are articles and books including Sharon DeBartolo Carmack's Organizing Your Family History Search.
Current research can be organized as you are enter the information into your computer or place it on a family group sheet. By citing the sources that supplied you with that information, you have identified what records supplied you with the information that you are now recording. Again, if you haven't cited sources in the past, then spend a few minutes each evening citing the sources of those pages you are going to file from your past research. Little by little you will begin to regain control of your research. Another valuable tool when engaging in current research is a research log. As the current research becomes the past, the research log help remind you of where you have been.
As you are working with your current research, you'll probably think of things you want to do in continuing this lineage, or in record availability. Perhaps you need to check for death records the next time you are at the Family History Library or the Historical Society. While we always think that we'll remember this later on, generally we do not. Instead of relying on your memory, rely on a notebook, notepad, or the note feature within your genealogy program. You can even use your word processing or spread sheet program to come up with a table of those research tasks you have yet to do.
Just as Hansel and Gretal used small pieces of bread to leave a trail, you can make little steps in reclaiming your research. Filing what you already have acquired, recording notes on things you need to get the next time you are at the library, and citing sources in your genealogy database all will help you in discerning your family tree trail amongst all the other trees.
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 an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at [email protected].
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.