You are surrounded by paper. Stacks of photocopies of birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates. Shoe boxes full of photographs, wedding invitations, funeral cards, baby announcements. The stacks are piled on top of stacks and one good sneeze will topple them all to the floor. Nightmare? Nope, just a day in the life of a genealogist!
Let’s stop the insanity! We can organize all those paper genealogy files that you have so they can sit in an orderly fashion on a shelf and mind their manners while you are able to move forward, knowing you can put your hands on the exact document you want within seconds! How? Grab your coffee and let’s dig in!
Organize Genealogy Files by Surname
This is by far the most common way to organize your files. Many genealogists create binders for each surname or surname section and file the documents inside by family group. There are many ways to do this, let’s talk about a few.
Hanging Files: The system created by Mary Hill is the most common organizational plan for using hanging files and I see people recommending it all the time. She splits the filing by surname section, or group, using a filing box for each of the four birth surnames of your grandparents. All the records for your grandparents’ ancestors will be filed in these boxes, keeping the family groups together. She goes into lots more detail on her site, so check it out if that is of interest to you.
Binders: Although last updated in 2009, this guide from Ol’ Myrt (otherwise known as Pat Richerson) is super helpful for those of you who want to organize by surname using binders. Grab her 14 page PDF (basically a mini e-Book) and work through the simple steps and examples she provides. Doused liberally with her sense of humor, you’ll immediately connect with Ol’ Myrt and have fun finally getting organized! If you like her style and want to learn more, she has checklists for each month of 2009. She restarted the series last year, but due to family issues had to discontinue it, so the 2009 series is the most complete.
Organize Genealogy Files by Accession
This is much less common, but the way that I have chosen to organize my files — at least digitally. I’ll be honest, I have MUCH more digital files than paper copies since the majority of my research has been done in the digital age. But I do have some random paper bits, and have everything just stuffed in a couple file folders at the moment. It’s that small.
However, if you have printed out census records and obituaries, it can be daunting to file by surname as you’ll need multiple copies in order to link the record to the person. With an accession system, the document is the primary and the people it mentions are the secondary.
Here’s what I mean: If I have a census from 1940 that lists my great-grandparents and three of their children, I give the census record a number (C1000125 for example) and then list all five of my ancestors in an index, linking them to that record ID. If you are a computer nerd like me, it’s treating information like a database, instead of a filing cabinet. Or, like in my former career in libraries, like the Dewey Decimal System instead of alphabetical. 🙂
Organize Genealogy Files by Geographical Location
Now this system is a bit different: It involves storing documents by the location they reference. So all birth/death/marriage certificates issued in Canyon County, Idaho would be filed together. The documents would be placed in chronological order within the location file. This is an interesting way to view documents and can help uncover missing lines of research that can be done. I cheat a little and am able to do this with my digital index of files, so I can get the best of both worlds!
This is probably the system that you will use. A hybrid is a blend of two (or more) other items. Taking the best ideas from other systems and merging them together. For example, you could use the Location system as your top-level organization, and then choose to use Surnames or Accession numbers for the next level. Or both! The key here is don’t be locked in to one person’s system. Find the parts of a system that work well for YOU and that you will actually use. And then implement!
Photos are an enigma all to themselves, so warrant a separate section! I’ll be honest here, I haven’t tackled organizing mine yet. I have thousands on my computer in various folders from organization attempts in the past (and probably a ton of duplicates too!), and a nice sized box full of those envelopes from the film developer with 3×5 or 4×6 double prints from 20 years ago. There are multiple ways to organize photos and each leaves something to be desired for me, hence why I haven’t really started on it. Ugh.
Albums: If you choose to put your photos in albums, you’ll want to be sure they are acid-free and able to preserve the integrity of the photo for years to come. I have two albums from my great-great-uncle that have photos from World War One and immediately after. They are pasted onto black paper pages and I cringe at the thought of removing them for preservation. I’ll likely scan them and donate the album to a museum, but going forward I’ll avoid that issue by following modern preservation techniques!
Scrapbooks: This is what my mother did for me and my siblings. She sorted through HUNDREDS of photos of us from birth until marriage, culling out the memories and built a meaningful scrapbook with names, dates, occasions to preserve the memories. Instead of focusing on preserving Every. Single. Photograph., she focused on the memories sparked by the photos and preserved them instead. Depending on your reasons for preserving photos, this is a great option. I love my scrapbook and cry every time I look through it as I remember the times with my grandparents who are now deceased, and with my family who are now scattered across the country.
What about the digital files? Here’s my post on how I organize them! And digital photos? Coming soon!
I’d love to hear how you organize your files! Have you tried one of the above systems? Or maybe come up with one of your own? Please share in the comments below!