Family Archivist: Organizing Research Materials

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

Ask the Archivist: How to get organized

Genealogists gather research materials of all kinds, from original documents to photocopied county histories to digitized photos. In this Q&A, Houston-based professional genealogist Amy Coffin addresses research-friendly organization and safe storage strategies.
Q. What kinds of physical materials do genealogical researchers collect?
A. It depends on the family. You might get original items handed down—actual wills or papers, letters, photos, programs, correspondence. My family is tiny and didn’t save anything. Most of what I have is photocopies that I’ve scanned to a digital format.
Q. Can we just three-hole punch papers and throw them in a binder?
A. You can, and some people do. But original materials such as documents and letters should be placed in archival storage conditions. Also, you don’t want to three-hole punch certain things—you might punch through the birth date on a vital record. I wouldn’t want to use staples or glue, either: When you alter an item, you risk changing the information on it.
Q. How do you work with research materials in different places, such as archival storage boxes, binders and a hard drive?
A. I do like to have everything in one place, so I digitize everything. It makes my research materials easily accessible. I have files for surnames and individuals. I create a personal inventory document on each individual so I know what I have on him or her—for example, a birth certificate, yearbook photo or letters. (You can download a blank personal inventory form to print and fill out from <>.) With everything in one place, I can see what I have, so I can write the family history story I want to write. And I still keep the papers stored away, but they don’t get handled.

Q. What if I don’t want to digitize everything?
A. There’s no reason you can’t do the same thing on paper. Just print out a personal inventory form for each person. You might be able to keep original documents in drop-in archival sleeves in a binder with your other research materials; it depends on what you have and what your preference is. Even if you keep originals separately in archival storage, you can place copies of them with your other research materials so all the content is together.

Q. What tips do you have for labeling research materials with source citation information?
A. If I digitize a document, I save it as a two-page PDF. Information on what it is and where I got it is on the second page. You can’t really separate the two pages, so the information won’t get lost. Also, my computer file names contain a lot of the source information. For photos, I can right-click to add information (in Windows, click on Properties, then Details, then add title, subject, tags and comments; with a Mac, use iPhoto software). With paper, if I have an article or something photocopied, I put it in a sleeve and then put a note on the back of the sleeve.

Q. What about backups of your research materials?
A. You do want to have a second copy of your research materials somewhere else—on a hard drive in another location, or online in “the cloud.” That way, you don’t worry about fires or floods. The same thing applies for paper copies: Keep an extra set in a separate location.

Archival Action: Organize your hard copy research

Time: varies

Cost: varies

Materials: binder, tabbed dividers, polypropylene sheet protectors (optional)
1. Set apart research materials (photocopies, printouts, written notes) relating to a single family line. Plan up to 100 pages of office-grade paper per 1-inch ring size, or 30 to 40 pages if using sheet protectors.
2. Place a pedigree chart in the front of the binder.
3. Label tabbed dividers by family group (or individual, if you have a lot of material).
4. Sort your documents into tabbed sections. Consider placing materials related to an ancestor’s childhood in his or her parents’ family group, and putting materials related to marriage and later in the ancestor’s grown-up family group.
5. Place family group sheets at the front of each section, along with personal inventory pages listing records you have for each person.
6. Make high-quality photocopies of deteriorating originals to preserve their content. Extra-dark or color copies may best capture fading handwriting or type.
7. Consider keeping sturdy original documents (8½x11 inches or smaller) in archival sheet protectors in a binder. For oversized or fragile documents, keep copies in a binder and originals in separate archival storage. (Note the location of originals on your personal inventory pages.)
8. Save space and supplies by filing multiple-page or related documents in the same sheet protector. But don’t file fragile originals or materials of different types (such as photos and newsprint) together.
9. Label the binder spine with the family name. 

Resource Roundup

From the September 2012 Family Tree Magazine