Why is organizing genealogy stuff perpetually challenging for so many of us? Maybe because finding new ancestry information is more fun than logging it. And organization isn’t a one-way-fits-everyone kind of deal—the system and tools best for you depend on how your brain works.
What I like about the following eight getting-organized principles (which have come from Family Tree Magazine contributors and readers over the years) is that you can apply them with the tools and techniques that are right for you.
1. Keep the big picture in mind.
You can use genealogy charts such as five-generation ancestor charts and family group sheets to help you visualize how your relatives fit together, or try an online family tree builder with an app on your smart phone. (Find free downloadable blank forms on FamilyTreeMagazine.com.) It’s also handy to have a large working family tree chart, where you can see the whole thing at once.
2. Take charge of paper files.
Set up a filing system for family papers. Many researchers use binders or file folders arranged alphabetically by surname. Each surname folder holds papers from a couple’s marriage to their death, as well as any general notes. Children go in their parents’ folder, then get their own folder when they marry. You also might keep folders for towns or counties, with maps, historical background and local research notes.
3. Go digital.
To save space in paper files and create electronic backups, scan photos and paper documents. Organize digital files with the same system as your paper files. Determine a file-naming scheme, write it down and stick to it.
4. Establish an organization routine.
If you regularly take short chunks of time to file stuff, it becomes second nature. Set up an inbox on your desk or computer hard drive for items you need to take action on (scan, label, etc.) and a “to file” folder for documents ready to be put away. Once a week or month, schedule time to empty these boxes.
5. Take advantage of tech tools.
You can organize with tons of tech tools and apps, such as Evernote for tracking information and research findings, Calibre to manage e-books, Flickr for photos, Excel spreadsheets for checklists and logs. Find some of our favorite genealogy apps listed here.
6. Designate a workspace.
If you’re like many of us, your genealogy workspace may double as a guest bedroom, dining room table or living room floor. Try to have a designated spot for your files, computer and books.
7. Color-code folders and files.
You could use a color for each surname, though you’d probably run out of colors before too long. I’d color code by branch with a different color for each of my grandparents’ lines. Color-code computer files and folders to match: On a Mac, click on a folder or file in the finder window and then click the down arrow next to the gear icon. From the drop-down menu, select Label and the color. PCs don’t have built-in folder color-coding, but you can download a program such as Folderico.
8. Create a kit for on-site research.
Prepare a bag with tools you might need for research at a repository: notebook, pen, pencil, money for the copier, flash drive, a family group sheet, surname variant lists, blank census or passenger list recording forms, etc. Now you won’t have to run around gathering stuff when you leave for the library.