9 Habits of Highly Organized Genealogists

9 Habits of Highly Organized Genealogists

Follow these strategies from researchers just like you to get your family tree files in order.

When my husband walks into my home office, he sees tons of paper and chaotic piles covering most of my desk. I see organized piles: one for things I need to read, one for things I need to file, one for projects I’m working on, an appointment book where I write my weekly to-do list, and a three-ring binder for the family I’m currently researching. I know exactly what’s in each pile, but other people—including my husband and fellow family history buffs—may not understand the method behind my organizational madness.

Over time, every genealogist has to confront the issue of organization, but the sheer number of ways to organize (and the amount of material we collect) can make it intimidating to start and maintain an organization method. So we asked our Family Tree Magazine readers to share their best advice for avoiding getting buried under mounds of family photos, vital records certificates, census page printouts, family tree charts and other records. We learned a few new tricks from the nine strategies that emerged, and hope you will, too.

1. Keep the big picture in mind.

Most readers’ organization systems start with two charts that help you visualize how your relatives all fit together: a family group sheet and a five-generation ancestor chart, which you can download for free at the Family Tree University website.

Many researchers keep online trees, but it’s also handy to have a large working family tree chart on your wall, where you can see the whole thing at once and not worry about sharing mistakes with the world. For Sylvia Weishuhn, this meant purchasing blank posterboards from the local dollar store and propping them against the wall on her office desk.

Weishuhn uses the boards to help clear up confusion about her father’s large family—he had 12 brothers and sisters. She draws boxes to chart her father’s immediate family connections and uses this reference, along with the listings of parents and siblings in her family tree research binder, to keep everyone on her tree straight. A large dry-erase board is an alternative to posterboard that would let you easily make adjustments as you learn more about your family, their relationships and major life events. Prices for dry-erase boards vary from about $38 to $250, depending on size of the board and whether it’s magnetic, freestanding or wall-mounted.

2. Take charge of paper files.

Photos. Birth, death and marriage certificates. Printouts of census records. Family tree charts. Newspaper clippings. Paper documents can really pile up, but readers have several ways to tame that plethora of paper. One option is to use three-ring binders with plastic sheet protectors (look for those made of archival-quality materials, and avoid PVC) and divider tabs. Betty Moren says the plastic sheet protectors can store not only family group sheets and documents, but also cards, newsletters, CDs or DVDs and other mementos.

Folders with pockets are useful to hold odd-shaped ephemera. Another option is to file genealogy papers in a file cabinet using hanging file folders and manila (or colored) file folders. Some readers have a specific notebook for each family. You can affix a family group sheet to the front of the notebook, and jot down research notes inside. If the notebook has a folder pocket, use it to store copies of documents. Whether you use a binder, folders or a notebook, Beatrice Hunter recommends alphabetizing the files by surname so you can quickly find the family you want to research. Within each surname folder or binder, Jan Rogge suggests filing items in chronological order starting with a couple’s marriage and ending with their death.

“As each of their children marries, a page is inserted directing the reader to a new binder starting with the marriage of that child,” Rogge says. For old family photos, Pam Meyers recommends using a photo book or scrapbook, particularly for photos of gravestones and the cemetery entrance.

3. Go digital.

To save space in paper files or create electronic backups, scan your documents and photos. You can choose from lots of different scanners. For example, reader Julie Haynie recommends the ScanSnap Evernote Edition scanner ($495). She says this scanner lets you categorize documents as they’re scanned, scans both sides of double-sided documents and scans up to 50 documents at once. Mark Bray uses a VuPoint portable scanner (prices vary by model).

To organize the digital files, consistency is key. “Consistency will make it easier to search and find the things you’re looking for,” says Christine Emonds. Start your digital organization with determining a structure for the digital folders—typically this may be a hierarchy of surname folders.

Under the surname folder, you could create a subfolder with an individual’s first name; under that, you could use a naming convention that includes the record type (or even another subfolder for record type, such as Death Records, which may include an obituary, a death certificate and info from the Social Security Death Index). Remember to create a standard way to name your files, too. Joy Blair puts her files in a surname folder, and then names her fi les like this: FirstName_LastName_Year_Month_Date_ RecordType. Camille Mecham uses this naming convention: Who_When_Where_What.

Once you determine your structure and file-naming scheme, write it down and stick to it. “I have written an SOP—standard operating procedure—for my digital files. This way, I am saving photos and documents the same way and I will be able to find them,” says Tina Telesca.

Use universal file formats such as PDF or JPG when you save files, too. For files not in a universal format, copy them and convert the copies so you can access the information no matter how technology changes or which device you use. To avoid keeping duplicate copies of your digital records, consider setting up a Microsoft Access database. April Earle uses one to link a single record to multiple individuals (such as a birth record to the child and to each parent).

“It used to be I had a folder for every person in my family tree and a copy of every document that pertained to them. Thus, a birth certificate would be copied three times—one copy in the mother’s file, one for the father’s and one for the child’s. Now I just have one copy of that document and a database that links that numbered document to those three numbered individuals.”

Access comes as part of the Office Professional 2013 software package (along with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook and Publisher) and you can purchase it as an add-on with an annual subscription.

Got piles of magazines and other periodicals you want to reference later? Create your own magazine index as you receive and read issues, so you can return to articles on topics of interest to you. At Family Tree Magazine, we do this for you in each year’s December issue. Another option for easy access to past Family Tree Magazine issues is our annual CD of issues (see Family Tree Shop).

“Although I subscribe to Family Tree Magazine, I also buy the annual CDs of each year’s issues,” says Ken Bonvallet. “This is because it’s easier to search for a topic on CD and much more thorough than using the published end of year index. Then I go to the paper copy to read the article.”

No matter what digital files you save and organization method you use, have a backup plan in case of technology failure or a natural disaster. This may include using an external hard drive, the free Dropbox app or a service that automatically saves the documents to the Cloud, such as Backblaze.

4. Color-code folders and files.

Color-coding is a popular organization method for many Family Tree Magazine readers, and you can take different approaches to this method. Many readers recommend using a different-colored folder for each surname. Anita Boynton says she color-codes each of her grandparents’ lines using red, yellow, blue and green. For paper files, she uses colored folders, pens, highlighters and stickers to sort and mark items. In Microsoft Outlook, she color-codes tasks and contacts so she knows which family line those items relate to. To learn how to set up color-coding in Outlook, watch this YouTube video.

Kim Simpson groups each family in a hanging file folder, and then color-codes by family relationship: a blue folder for the husband, a red folder for the wife and a manila folder for each child. To take the color-coding a step further, you could do what April Barr does, and print your notes and records on colored paper. For example, Barr uses purple for her father’s side, so all the papers she prints—such as family group sheets—are printed on purple paper.

You can color-code digital files and folders to match your paper files, too: On a Mac, click on a folder 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 you want to use. Repeat these steps for individual files.Windows PCs don’t have folder color-coding built-in, but you can download a color-coding program such as Folder Colorizer or Folderico.

5. Use a numbering system.

A numbering system for relatives also can help keep you organized. Janice Kessler uses a combination of numbers and letters. “I labeled the oldest child in each family No. 1 with his or her spouse 1A. Children were listed in birth order beginning with No. 1a, 1b, 1c and so on. The next eldest sibling would be No. 2 and the spouse 2A, with children 2a, 2b and 2c,” Kessler says.

Note that the spouses use uppercase letters and the children use lowercase letters. Ahnentafel (German for “ancestor table”) is a standard genealogical numbering system you can use to keep track of ancestors (those from whom you descend—parents, grandparents, etc.). For example, if you’re No. 1 on an Ahnentafel chart, your father is No. 2 and your mother is No. 3. Your father’s father is No. 4, and your father’s mother is No. 5. As you might have figured out, fathers are even numbers; mothers odd. To find a father’s number, double the child’s number. Add one to the father’s number to get the mother’s number.

Many genealogy software programs will automatically calculate the Ahnentafel numbers for you and create Ahnentafel charts you can print. To keep track of sources, Howland Davis numbers all of his sources chronologically. Davis puts the source number in the upper-right corner of each document he files. He then compiles the list of sources in a single binder. If Davis needs to confirm a source of a document he’s working with, he can simply go to the source binder. For example, the 1910 US census may be source number 22. If Davis has a 1910 US census record for his grandfather and a separate record for his great-grandfather, both sources may be listed under number 22, but his grandfather may be listed as 22.i and his great-grandfather as 22.ii. The source citation will appear for each person.

6. Take advantage of tech tools and apps.

Whether you need to track online searches and record discoveries, store and access reference materials, share fi les with family or track e-books you’ve downloaded, you can choose from tons of tech tools and apps. Consider these:

Family Tree Magazine editors and our readers love Evernote. This free web browser plug-in and mobile app helps you save and organize information you find online, as well as tag it so you can search for it and fi nd it later. For the power user, Evernote also offers a paid premium version for $45 per year, which includes more storage capacity and enhanced searching capabilities within PDFs, photos and other documents. Another similar tool, OneNote, also is available—it’s part of some Microsoft Office software packages.

CALIBRE: To keep track of the nearly 500 local history, family genealogy and other e-books Carolyn Robinson has downloaded, she uses Calibre. “I like to use Calibre to organize all of these downloads, add tags for searching, etc.,” Robinson says.

Calibre is free, opensource e-book management software. The program helps you sort and track books in your e-book library and convert e-book file formats. It also syncs to e-reader devices and supports most major e-book formats.

FLICKR: Finding a good method to organize and share digital or scanned images can be tricky. Melissa Hull uses Flickr for her photos. “I’ve scanned in all my parents’ and grandparents’ photos to Flickr.com. It only costs me about $25 per year, and the photos are all safe if my house gets blown away by a tornado,” she says.

Hull has created sets for each grandparent, aunt and uncle, and labels the photos with the ancestors’ names and other pertinent information. She also shares them with family members by sending them a link to a group of photos the family member is interested in.

MICROSOFT EXCEL: Spreadsheets are every genealogist’s friend. You can use Microsoft Excel to create research checklists, to-do lists (such as cemeteries to visit, microfilms to order, books to request through interlibrary loan) and contact lists for relatives and individuals you meet as you research.

Ruth Meyers suggests creating a spreadsheet or table for each ancestor and input the information you’ve learned about him or her. She recommends inputting a photo of the person from different stages of their life as well as a tombstone photo so you have a snapshot of each ancestor’s life in a single place.

7. Create files for research on the go.

Accordion files are great for corralling your research papers when you’re researching at a repository or visiting a cemetery. You can put surnames on the file’s tabs to sort information you collect. Many readers also use index cards.

“I found it best to have a notecard for each person/couple. This way you can include birth and death dates, marriage dates and the children they had and dates,” LeAnn Salwey says. “You can keep track of everyone and add cards as necessary.” The back of the card is great for jotting down other details, such as source information.

Fillable forms are also great on-the-go resources. Having a form with pre-determined categories to fill in as you find family information helps keep you focused and ensures you have all the information from the record you need—such as dates, names and the source citation information. Check out the Essential Family Tree Forms Library CD for 75 type-and-save research forms and tracking worksheets.

8. Establish a workflow routine.

Maintaining an organization system may seem daunting, but if you regularly take short chunks of time to put papers in the right place or scan papers, it becomes second nature. Once you return from a library research session, take a few minutes to file paper copies or scan them. If needed, set up an inbox in your office for items you need to take action on (scan, label, number, etc.) and a “to file” box for papers and photos ready for you to put away. If filing or scanning doesn’t fit in your schedule to do right away, consider Mark Bray’s strategy: He scans new documents he finds once each month.

If organizing tends to overwhelm you, Mary Ann Gauer recommends setting a timer and working until it rings. Another option, suggested by Janet Black, is to file one piece of paper each day. Do you have doubles of records? Shred or recycle the extra copies. Keep a checklist of what you have and don’t have for each ancestor to avoid duplicating your research efforts. You can download our free Records Checklist.

9. Designate a workspace.

Having an organized workspace can help keep your genealogy files organized, too. Richard Stock types and prints a table of contents and then attaches it to the front of each of his file cabinets. If he adds something to the cabinet, he handwrites it on the list. A few times each year he’ll update the list and print out a new copy.

If you’re like many of us, your genealogy workspace may double as a guest bedroom, dining room or other room in your home. Instead of relegating your fi es to a closet or storage room, you can find creative ways to incorporate your files into your home’s décor. For example, you could use antique tins, decorative hat boxes or pretty photo boxes to store letters, postcards and photos—just make sure they’re archival quality containers.

“Add a small, adhesive label to the bottom of the box or tin with a brief description of its contents and your guests will be none-the-wiser of its true purpose,” says Autumn Callahan. A decorative, framed family tree chart could hang on the wall as art. In addition, be sure your desk works for your research needs.

Sara Sowa recently got a new research desk and it’s made a world of difference. “I love my new desk. It has room for my books and computers, lots of drawers and slots for large and small items, plus a file folder drawer,” she says.

No matter what organization methods you choose, the best thing you can do is find one that’ll work for you and start using the method right away—then stick with it. Future generations—and probably your spouse or housemate—will thank you.

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