A fellow genealogist recently updated her Facebook status with: “Filing … the challenge for all genealogists! My goal this week is to clear a path to my file cabinets. Then I can catch up!” It was a very well-liked update. Most of us are in the same predicament: How do we stay organized as our printed census records, research notes and family tree charts continue piling up, but our space to store them remains limited (and minuscule)?
As I sat pondering my own towering piles of paper, I came up with 10 space-saving ways to get organized. These strategies—from purging to digitizing to making equipment do double duty—will open up the mental and physical space you need to conquer tough genealogical challenges.
10 Space-Saving Ways to Organize Your Genealogy
1. Purge your papers
Your first instinct might be to scan every document you own, but are all those papers really worth saving? Going through my own files, I found a lot of outdated material—pedigree charts on families I’ve since discovered aren’t related to me, email messages long since answered, lists of microfilms and books to check that are no longer pertinent to my research. All that can go into the recycle bin.
Next, consider whether you really need to keep printouts from databases that are easily accessible online. I’d printed a lot of records from the International Genealogical Index (IGI), but why should they take up precious storage space when I can quickly access the records at any time on FamilySearch.org? Besides, I can easily copy entire IGI records into my genealogy software.
When deciding what to keep and what to toss, author and genealogy expert Sharon DeBartolo Carmack recommends asking these questions:
- Could this item be a historical document in the future?
- Will future genealogists find this piece of paper valuable to our family history?
- Is the information on this paper up to date?
- Would it be hard to get another copy of this document if I should need it again?
If you answer all yeses, keep the document; if you answer all nos, think about tossing it.
2. Digitize, digitize, digitize
No doubt there’ll be plenty of papers you want to keep. Although genealogists do a lot of research online and use genealogy software to organize their findings, most still manage to accumulate a forest’s worth of paper files—birth and death certificates, wills, land records, Google maps and snail mail correspondence. Scanning your documents lets you relegate most of your paper files to storage or the recycling bin—and possibly free up space in your home office. What’s more, you can easily share these digital back-ups via email and attach them to source citations in your genealogy software.
If you want to do a lot of digitizing, you need a scanner with an automatic document feeder (ADF). The Visioneer Strobe 500 is a personal desktop document scanner with a 20-page ADF. It scans up to 30 images per minute in duplex (double-sided) mode and saves them as PDF files. Eject the scanner from its docking station, and it becomes portable. The unit comes with document management software for Windows and Macs. The bundled optical character recognition (OCR) software, for Windows only, turns typewritten documents into editable, formatted text for use in word processing, desktop publishing and other software. Imagine how quickly you can find Grandpa’s name in that news clipping when you convert your paper files to searchable PDFs.
3. Set up a system
Once you’ve pared down your papers to the ones that are really worth saving, it’s time to file them. Having a good genealogy filing system prevents papers from piling up on your desk because you don’t know what to do with them. Carmack suggests arranging your genealogy files by surname, place and record type. I use a twist on that system: Every letter, record and research note gets a document number and is listed in my combined research/correspondence calendar. It’s a Microsoft Word file with a table that can be sorted by surname, place (recorded in state, county, town format, as in Illinois, Knox, Victoria) and document type (such as census, probate or military record). With this method, it’s simple to keep track of my research, and I can easily find everything I have on, say, my missionary ancestor Evan Jones.
Office supply stores such as OfficeMax offer a range of file storage solutions. Simple manila folders work fine and fit into cardboard boxes. For easier access to your files, Iris File-n-Stack file boxes are stackable and use hanging folders. They’re also clear, so you can easily view the contents, and have sturdy handles for carrying. If you have a lot of files, consider investing in a steel filing cabinet. It’d take up less space than a bunch of stacked file boxes, and you’d be able to get to your files more easily. OfficeMax sells letter-size Hon file cabinets with two drawers or four drawers. Both Iris file boxes and Hon file cabinets use hanging file folders, which are easier to organize than manila folders.
4. Print less
You can avoid bulging file folders simply by printing less in the first place. You’ll spend less on ink and paper, and save a few trees while you’re at it. I used to print everything—email messages, family group sheets, pedigree charts, pictures and records. Sometimes it’s handy to refer to a piece of paper, for example, when you need a list of things to look up at a library. But why print every document when you can view it just fine on your computer screen?
Most large genealogy websites let you save records to your hard drive. To save a record as a JPG file, click the Save button on Ancestry or FamilySearch. On HeritageQuest Online, click on Download to save a record as either a PDF or a TIFF file. Your genealogy software probably lets you save reports as PDF files. To do this with Personal Ancestral File (PAF), you need a free utility program such as pdf995. Before creating a report in PDF, you’ll have to change your computer’s default printer to pdf995.
When you’re saving important documents digitally, you need to make sure you have a good backup system. An automatic online backup service such as Carbonite is ideal. Regularly save copies of your files to an external hard drive or burn backup CDs or DVDs, and share copies with family.
5. Lighten your library
If you belong to a genealogical society or attend conferences, you know how journals and conference syllabi take up a lot of space. Many such publications are now available in space-saving digital versions.
Members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society can download the society’s quarterly journal and opt out of the print version. The Pennington Research Association eliminated its semiannual black-and-white journal in favor of articles online, complete with color photographs.
In 2009, the California Genealogical Society replaced its print newsletter with online communications, including an email newsletter, blog, website and Google calendar. Kathryn M. Doyle, the society’s newsletter editor and blogger, says the newsletter is still mailed to a few members who don’t have email, but savings on postage and printing freed up enough funds to publish a scholarly journal. “I highly recommend going green to all societies,” she says. “[The email newsletter has] been a fantastic way to advertise our events, spread our message and gain new members.”
Magazines can be a big clutter contributor. Either you haven’t gotten around to reading them yet or you’re saving the issues with those websites you’ve been meaning to surf. Naturally, back issues of Family Tree Magazine are worth saving for future reference, but you probably don’t have enough space to keep every magazine you get. After a few months, you might tear out articles you want to save and discard the rest of the magazine.
Better yet, you could donate your printed copies to a library and still hang onto all that wisdom by purchasing digital versions of past issues.
6. Work the web
Family and local histories are great sources of genealogical information. Family history books typically trace several generations of a person’s descendants, and town and county histories often include detailed biographies of early residents. Many such books were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but most are hard to find these days. Until recently, you had to borrow copies on interlibrary loan, buy them used online or visit large genealogy libraries to access them.
Now many of these rare history books are available free online through websites such as Google Books, the Brigham Young University Family History Archive and HeritageQuest Online (free through subscribing libraries). Subscription sites such as Ancestry.com and World Vital Records also offer digitized books. I was on the lookout for The Registers of Glasbury, a transcription of church records for a Welsh town where some of my ancestors lived, but I found used copies to be expensive. A Google search turned up two online copies, and I downloaded the whole book for free from Internet Archive. The book takes up a little space on my hard drive, but none on my bookshelves.
It’s helpful to have a genealogy reference book at your fingertips, but don’t overlook the vast body of online genealogy resources. FamilySearch has published a terrific series of concise genealogy research outlines for US states, countries around the world, military records, tracing immigrant ancestors and other topics. To find them, look on FamilySearch Wiki under the Getting Started menu, then explore the Research Resources. I used to keep a 3-inch three-ring binder filled with printed guides beside my computer, but now I’ve replaced it with PDFs versions downloaded from FamilySearch. For more research advice, select Search the Wiki to access thousands of articles contributed by users.
7. Find the right fit
Family heirlooms such as photo albums, Bibles and diaries can be space thieves because their odd sizes make them hard to store. Several companies carry archival storage products sized perfectly for just about any document, photograph or artifact you might have. Hollinger Metal Edge, Gaylord, Light Impressions and University Products offer acid- and lignin-free boxes for photographs, negatives, artwork, flags, rare books and textiles, as well as scrapbooks for newspapers. These options make it easier to line up your memorabilia on bookshelves.
Historical societies are a great resource for advice on archival storage. As a member of my county’s historical society, I get a discount on archival storage supplies. I asked the society archivist how I should store several old photographs mounted on boards as big as 15×18 inches—a real headache to find a place for. He recommended storing the mounted images lying flat, and I was able to purchase a box that fits them just right and sits nicely on top of several other heirloom storage boxes.
8. Get a space-saving computer
A netbook or an Apple iPad is compact and convenient for traveling or computing in any room, but neither substitutes for a notebook or desktop computer when it comes to using genealogy software and editing photos. Notebook computers work OK, but they tend to have small screens and cramped keyboards. If you want the advantages of a desktop computer despite limited space, consider an all-in-one computer: a monitor with the computer housed in the base or in the monitor itself.
9. Do double duty
You can save space with other hardware, too. Multifunction printers combine a printer, scanner, fax machine and photocopier in one unit. Many have ADFs for fast scanning, too. The Canon PIXMA MP560 Wireless Inkjet All-In-One Photo Printer/Copier/Scanner lacks an ADF, but customers rate it highly. It measures 17.9 x 14.5 x 6.3 inches and comes with built-in wireless and two-sided printing so you can save on paper.
When selecting a multifunction printer, you have to choose either an inkjet or laser model. I like to have an inkjet printer for photos and a laser printer for fast, inexpensive everyday use. And I like my standalone Canon scanner which does a nice job on photos, slides and negatives. So an MFP doesn’t work for me—but I have a four-shelf printer stand so this equipment doesn’t take up too much space.
10. Make it meaningful
We genealogists have a natural inclination to save anything that sheds light on our families and their lives. Photos, letters, clothing, furniture and toys all can be cherished mementos passed down through generations. But if those items aren’t labeled and organized, someday someone might not recognize their significance. And if the valuable items are mixed with less important stuff, like miscellaneous newspapers and receipts for everyday purchases, the whole kit and caboodle could get tossed.
Bottom line: Staying organized is easier when there’s less to deal with. Focus on keeping only the truly meaningful items. You might even give some of those mementos and heirlooms to the family members you wish to have them now, while you can share the stories that go with them—and not have them taking up space in your own house.
Last updated: January 2019
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