Be An Organization Wizard

Be An Organization Wizard

Is genealogical clutter stalling your family history progress? Use these 31 painless tips to get your research in order—no supernatural powers required.

Did you know that Samantha Stevens, the magically empowered housewife on TV’s “Bewitched,” was a genealogist? It’s true: In season five, after the Burning Oak Country Club’s snooty screening committee concluded Samantha’s pedigree was polluted, she exposed the members’ black-sheep ancestors. Of course you didn’t notice Samantha’s enchantment with roots research. Her home showed no telltale signs of her hobby—no family tree charts, legal pads and dog-eared books piled high on the dining room table; no photos spilling out of shoeboxes. You never witnessed Samantha’s frantic search for her father’s birth certificate or cousin Serena’s e-mail message bearing the names of Aunt Clara’s parents.

Even though her mortal spouse, Darrin, begged Samantha not to use her supernatural abilities, how could she resist instantly organizing her research? With a mere wrinkle of her nose and that tinkling-bell sound effect, manila folders would leap into their drawers, neatly arranging themselves by surname. Flurries of five-generation ancestor charts, photocopied marriage certificates, gravestone transcriptions and research notes would file themselves. Samantha’s computer hard drive would whir to life, sorting digitized documents and GEDCOMs.

“If only I had such powers of organization,” you think, “my research would be immaculate, too.” But wait—you do have the power. Granted, it’ll take more than a nose twitch, but you can clear off your dining room table, make e-mails easy to locate and avoid return trips to the library to re-photocopy those records you misplaced. The payoff? Your ability to research faster and smarter. Just use these simple tricks.

1. Clear your calendar first: Decide once and for all that organizing your genealogy research is top priority. Set aside a block—or several blocks—of time to get the job done, then tell everyone you’re busy and unplug your phone. This may seem like time better spent on research, but family information does little good when you’ve lost the piece of paper you wrote it on.
2. Select a filing system: Most genealogists file by surname. Each nuclear family gets a hanging folder for family charts, census forms and other documents that apply to everyone. Within the family’s folder, every member has a file folder with personal records such as birth certificates, his timeline and a research worksheet (see tip 5). When a child marries, his or her new family gets a separate hanging folder for all documents created henceforth. If someone had more than one spouse, you can designate file folders for each spouse in the family’s folder, and file each child’s documents with the spouse that he belongs to. Of course, there’s not one “correct” filing system—the key is finding one that works for you, and sticking to it. For more ideas (including strategies that incorporate common genealogical numbering systems), consult Organizing Your Family History Search by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Betterway Books, $17.99).
3. File away: Start with the family folder: First comes a pedigree chart for that branch, followed by a family group sheet. In personal folders, you’d put a research worksheet first, then records in chronological order. You can file copies of correspondence in the appropriate person’s folder, or make a separate correspondence folder in each family’s file. If you’re really ambitious, go to the free Download Forms page on our Web site < download.html> and print out copies of the Table of Contents form, adapted from Carmack’s book. List the contents of each folder, then staple the form to the front.
4. Label your papers: While you’re going through papers, write on each one which family it pertains to and what it is, plus where and when you got it. In the future, label photocopies as soon as you make them. This will help you (or someone else) identify records at a glance and easily go back to the source.
5. Make a research worksheet for each person: You’ll know immediately what you’ve found on your ancestor, and holes in your research will magically reveal themselves.’s free, downloadable Research Worksheet has spaces to record life dates, alternate name spellings, hobbies and just about anything else you could learn about your ancestor. Or you might prefer to use the Biographical Outline—its columns for Date, Age, Event and Place, and Source give more flexibility in recording life events.
6. Keep a correspondence log: List all the letters you send and receive, noting the records you requested, repositories you asked and dates you wrote (or received a reply). If you save copies of letters on your computer, make note of what the files are named and where they’re stored. Update the log when you get a response.
7. Consolidate general research paperwork: Don’t let stray papers contribute to clutter. Create one folder for each year to contain correspondence logs, receipts for online record orders, printouts of subscription database confirmations and other items that don’t seem to belong in your research-specific files.
8. Color coordinate (or not): It might be helpful to file Fluffernutter family documents in red folders, Knickerbockers in yellow and so on. Some people go all out with matching pens and binders. The risk is running out of colors or losing the teal highlighter you need for notes on the Frankfurters. You could purchase a color-coded system such as Color Track <>, or go with manila folders and write surnames on everything.
9. Start a research log or journal: Download one from, or customize your own using an Excel spreadsheet. Take it along on every research trip and list the date, records you’ve looked for, sources you’ve checked and information you learned. This’ll keep you from repeating a lookup later.
10. Stick to a single filing system: Maintaining a filing method takes effort—that’s why we recommend organizing your computer files the same way as your paper files. Each family gets a folder, with subfolders for members inside, and a separate folder holds general paperwork. Remember to keep your genealogy files separate from other electronic data. See the February 2004 Family Tree Magazine for more-specific instructions on conquering computer clutter.
11. Make computer file names meaningful: It’s easy to save a records request letter as jonesletter.doc, but later, you’ll have to open it to know what it’s about. Instead, call that letter seeking Peter Michael Jones’ birth certificate
pmjones-bcrequest.doc. File names not enough to jog your memory? With Windows XP, you can add file descriptions—title, subject, author, keywords,comments—by rightclicking on the document icon and then selecting Properties>Summary. In Mac OS X, you can add details by selecting the file, hitting command-I (for Get Info) and
typing in the Comments field.
12. Keep a separate log to track online research: An Excel spreadsheet would be perfect. Anytime you search for an ancestor in an online database, enter the date, the Web address, the database name, ancestors
you searched for and information you found. This will save you from repeating searches and remind you when it’s time to go back for another look.
13. Maintain a similar list of message-board postings: Lose track of your postings and you could miss out on valuable information. Log where you posted, what you asked, the e-mail address you used, any responses
and the name and e-mail address of the respondent. Schedule time once a month or so to check the boards for responses.
14. Stop inbox clutter before it starts: Sign up for a free Hotmail <>, Yahoo! <> or Google <> e-mail account to use just for genealogy message boards, newsletter signups, messages to potential cousins and other research activities.
15. Use your filing system for e-mails, too: Make a folder for each family and a subfolder for each person. For e-mails about places rather than people, use folders named for the appropriate state or county.
16. Give each e-mail message a descriptive subject: Algernon Hatfield, Poughkeepsie, NY, GenCircles Posting is much better than Hatfield Info Request. You usually can rename e-mails you receive from other
(less-organized) people, too. Outlook for Windows lets you change the subject line by opening the message, typing a new subject and selecting File>Save.
17. Reign in your Favorites: Organizing Favorites—sometimes called Bookmarks— works differently in different Web browsers. In Internet Explorer, look under the Favorites menu and choose Organize Favorites. You can create folders and subfolders just as you would on your hard drive, and rename sites with descriptive titles. Make a folder for each surname and place you research, as well as databases, message boards, societies, libraries and other historical sites you frequent. Get in the habit of filing Favorites as soon as you make them.
18. Keep a notebook by your computer: Jot down Web sites to revisit, news to remember and any tidbit you’d otherwise write on a scrap of paper. Another option: Copy and paste Web-page text and URLs into a running Word document. (Just take care to identify the Web site name or page title in case the address changes.)
19. Practice smart, safe storage: Keeping your genealogy in order isn’t strictly about records and papers—it’s also about saving photos and ephemera. You can get acid and lignin-free albums, folders, envelopes and boxes from the archival suppliers listed in the Toolkit (above). File your photos—you guessed it—by surname, same as your paper
files. Label the backs of the prints using a special photo-labeling pencil. If you opt for albums, don’t worry about
fancy decorations right now. Just use photo corners and caption each image with names, dates and everything else you know about it. You’ll find more photo-storage advice in Maureen A. Taylor’s Preserving Your Family
(Betterway Books, $19.99).
20. Designate a mystery-photo folder: Put your nameless photos inside (once you’ve made headway on an ID, you
can move the photo to the suspected subjects’ folder). Attach a copy of each mystery shot to a photo-identification worksheet (find it in the May 2005 Trace Your Family History) and keep them with your family files.
21. Catalog your family heirlooms: You want potential heirs to know everything you do about family keepsakes. Make a list of each item and fill in its maker, date of manufacture, value, original owner and provenance (succession of owners). Note how you got the item, too. Photograph your heirlooms and number the photos to correspond with each catalog listing. (You can keep track of the treasures your relatives inherited, too, using the Artifacts and Heirlooms in Other Peoples’ Possession form on Assemble everything in an album or store it with your research in an Heirlooms file.
22. Assemble a research travel binder: It should have copies of your pedigree charts and family groups sheets; alternate name spellings, a running to-do list and a records list for each family; blank note-taking forms (also available as free downloads from and a research log. Just grab the binder and you’re out the door.
23. Pack a travel tote: Include these items: your binder (see the previous tip); a magnifier; change for the photocopier; hand wipes; white cotton gloves; a pencil case with pens and mechanical pencils, a mini-stapler, paper  clips and a highlighter; aspirin or ibuprofen; a notebook; a fanny pack (it’s not the height of fashion, but it’s safer than hanging your purse on the back of a chair); and sticky notes for marking pages to copy (but don’t use them on fragile historical documents).
24. Manage your magazines: We humbly suggest storing your Family Tree Magazines in a slipcase (available from 800-258-0929 or <>), with pages you’ll need again marked. Add our handy five-year article index—if you missed the index in our February 2005 issue, download it from <>. You also can purchase magazine holders at an office-supply store. (Home store IKEA <> makes some nice, cost-effectiveones, too.) If you’re intent on paring down your collection, drop off extras at your dentist’s office or the library.
25. Bring order to books: They’re hard to part with—the second you take a book to Goodwill, you’re sure to need the reference on page 216. But you’ve stubbed your toe on that stack of family histories one too many times. If you rarely use a volume, photocopy the pages with the important info, then donate the book to a library (where you
can visit it whenever you want). If you’ve got the space, box up extra books and store them under a bed. The rest should go on a shelf arranged by categories, such as Family Histories, Immigration and How-To, then alphabetically by author or title. Naturally, you want to save heirlooms such as family Bibles and Great-grandma’s
journal. The May 2005 Trace Your Family History has advice on caring for antique Bibles; for other precious tomes, buy archival boxes from the suppliers on page 25.
26. Invest in CD storage: A desktop CDstorage container might work—or it might get in the way. Check office-supply stores and organization-store Web sites for CD holders that fit on bookshelves or hang on the wall. If the CDs hold your backup files, you’ll need something more secure—a safety deposit box or a good-quality fireproof safe
in a first-floor, interior closet. Donate data discs you don’t need to a genealogical society or sell them on eBay <>.
27. Clear distracting desktop clutter: Mount your PC unit under your desk or rest it on a cart (look for mounting hardware and carts at office-supply stores). Put paper clips, pens and highlighters in a drawer or craft storage box, and get a bookshelf for books.
28. Set up a paperwork system: Use a standing file or wall files labeled with categories for what you do most: File, Call or E-mail, Records to Request, Bills to Pay or whatever. Go through the file once a week and complete all the tasks.
29. Store your stuff where you do most of your work: Otherwise, you’ll accumulate piles of paper everywhere. Live in a small space? Buy a file box you can roll into a closet on a moment’s notice, or keep papers in binders on a bookshelf.
30. Visualize success: If you’re an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of person, hang your to-do list, master ancestor chart and genealogical society events calendar on a bulletin board. They’ll be off your desk but still in front of you.
31. Schedule monthly maintenance—and stick to it: Remember our first tip, when you made organization a priority? Keep it that way. Short straightening sessions are much less painful than tackling an annual accumulation of research byproducts. File errant papers, delete extraneous e-mails, sort Web-browser bookmarks, check up on those message board postings and transfer research notes to their proper places. We mortals do have advantages. Samantha Stevens, after thoroughly embarrassing the country club admissions board, had to go reverse the mule spell her warlock father cast on Darrin. But you, having organized yourself, can now turn your genealogical powers to more-efficient, more-productive and more enjoyable research.
From the October 2005 Family Tree Magazine 


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