Winning the Paper Chase

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

What’s the one word that can generate a squirm and nervous laughter in a room full of genealogists? Organization. Are you organized? See. I saw you squirm and heard that guilty chuckle. It’s OK. No one is born organized. It’s a skill we all have to learn, and genealogists of all people need to get a good grip on it. Everything we do generates piles of papers: photocopies of documents, charts, forms, notes, lecture handouts…. It’s endless. We could rebuild a sequoia with all the paper we collect. Even if you’re using some form of computer organization, you still have paper printouts.

You need a filing system to keep ahead of the flood of paper and keep from losing your most valuable family history finds in the clutter. You need — here we go again — to get organized. Don’t squirm — here’s how to get started:

Start small

There are probably as many different filing systems as there are genealogists, but each has one thing in common: ancestors. Every genealogist is collecting material on ancestors. What genealogists do with that material is another story. Ideally, your research note-taking should revolve around whatever filing system you establish so items are easily filed and retrieved after each research trip.

That means your filing system is the heart of your genealogical research. Finding details about your ancestors may quicken your pulse, boost your adrenaline and make you feel giddy with success. But if you can’t easily retrieve that data after you’ve already collected it once, you won’t feel the same exhilaration tracking it down again — even though you may spend as much time and energy finding it the second time. You’ll just feel frustrated.

It really doesn’t matter what type of system you use or whether you’re using file folders or three-ring binders. What’s important is that your system is easy to use and, more important, easy to maintain.

Let’s start with that stack of papers you’ve already accumulated. You don’t need to launch right into one of the more-detailed filing systems described here, especially if you’re just beginning to research your family tree. All you need to get going is some file folders and a plastic crate or a two-to three-inch three-ring binder with subject dividers.

If you’re using file folders, start by labeling one for each different surname on your charts. Then file all papers pertaining to that surname in that file folder. You can arrange them by type of record, chronologically by the date of the record, or by family groups. If you prefer to use a binder, then label subject dividers with the surnames on your charts, and place corresponding documents behind each divider.

Take it to the next level

This simple method will get you organized initially, but as you gather more paper and documents on a surname, you’ll find your file folder or binder needs a Weight Watchers plan. And it’ll start taking you longer and longer to find a needed document. At that point, you need to consider subdividing your surname files.

Some genealogists do this by separating documents into files according to surname and locality. For example, if the Turner family lived first in Baltimore, Md., then moved to Clark County, Nev., you’d have two file folders or subject dividers: “TURNER: Baltimore, MD” and “TURNER: Clark County, NV.” Every record you uncovered in Baltimore sources on the Turners would go in the corresponding file. Every record from Clark County sources on the Turners goes in that file.

This can help slim down your folders, but you’ll soon run into two main problems:

• If the family stayed in a locality for many generations, you’ll still have obese files.

• You have to remember where the family lived to retrieve a particular document.

So eventually you’ll need to step up to a more detailed organizational scheme. Here we’ll look at two of the most popular methods of filing. They may seem involved and detailed initially, but once you get the hang of them, they’ll save you tons of time and headaches down the road.

Surname + record type = organization

This first choice for getting organized adapts easily from filing strictly by surname. Simply sort the contents of your bulging surname files by types of records. You’d then label your files by both surname and record type: “TURNER: Census,” “TURNER: Land Records,” “TURNER: Immigration Records” and so forth. Arrange these folders alphabetically by surname, then alphabetically by the type of record. This system also grows with your research and is customized to each family. For instance, you don’t need a file labeled “TURNER: Military Records” if you haven’t sought these types of records or if no one in your Turner family served in the military.

Another advantage of this approach is that typically your research is by record type, so you’ll take notes accordingly. When it comes time to put away your research when you get home, it will be easy, stress-free, pre-organized and therefore less time-consuming.

Let me show you exactly how this system works. I’m looking for land records in Orange County, Va., for two surnames: Fitzhugh and Stuart. From the deed index, I copy all the entries for Fitzhugh onto one sheet of paper; all the entries for Stuart go onto another sheet. The Fitzhugh index entries then get filed in the folder labeled “FITZHUGH: Land Records”; the Stuart index entries are filed in the folder “STUART: Land Records.”

The heading of every new page of notes has the following information:

• surname researching

• today’s date

• repository — the library or archive where I found this resource

• complete source citation, e.g., county, state, deed book volume, page(s), microfilm number (if pertinent)

• condition of the record or microfilm (too dark, out of focus, faded, water-stained, torn, out of order, tight binding)

So what happens if I’ve found a deed that pertains to both a Fitzhugh and a Smart, where one is buying land from the other, for instance? There are two options: I can make a duplicate of my notes and put one in the “FITZHUGH: Land Records” file and one in the “STUART: Land Records” file, or I can make a cross-reference in one or the other file, such as “See FITZHUGH: Land Records.” This dilemma will come up for other records, too, such as marriage documents, census enumerations with more than one surname in the household or on the same page or in the same town, and cemetery transcriptions. Handle these the same way.

Although categorizing your files by surname and record type will easily organize everything and help you find needed documents quickly, one more trick will help you retrieve documents within seconds: a table of contents. This table of contents is similar to a search calendar or log. Here’s how it works:

• Each file gets its own table of contents page(s). In the upper left of the page, enter the surname; in the upper right, enter the type of record. This information matches the file’s label.

• When you get a document (no doubt a photocopy) or take notes, record on the table of contents the date, the ancestor for which the search was made, the repository and address where you wrote or visited and the amount of money (if any) you sent or paid to get the document. (You already know what kind of record it was because of the file it’s in — obituary, birth record, probate and so on.)

• Now assign the document, photocopy or your notes a page number (or enclosure number) for your files. Put the number somewhere on the front of document, such as the upper right or left corner.

• Also record on the table of contents the rest of the information, such as the complete source citation; the results of your mailed request or research; the date you received an answer to your mailed request.

• Finally, file the photocopy or notes numerically in your file.

Each document you obtain and file will be given the next consecutive page/enclosure number. This number will likely be out of sequence on your table. For example, let’s say you requested three documents on the same day and listed them on your table of contents (minus the page number, citation and the results). Suppose you received a response to your second request before the others. This is the first document to arrive, so it will be page/enclosure number 1. Now suppose a response to your third request arrives next. It will be assigned number 2. When you finally get a response to the first request, it becomes number 3.

The order of the page numbers on your table of contents isn’t important. All documents will be in numerical order in the file folder. What’s important is the column “Listing of Search,” which gives the name of the person for whom you’re searching. This needs to be as uncluttered as possible. When you want to find that obituary for John Turner, you simply glance down that column for his name. The results will tell you if you have it or need to search for it somewhere else. If you have the record, the contents will give you the corresponding page/enclosure number so you can quickly find it in your file. If you have a document that pertains to two surnames, choose one surname under which to file the document. Then, in the other surname file’s table of contents, enter the document as you did in the other file, except under enclosure/page number make a cross-reference notation. Suppose the document is a marriage record: File it in the groom’s file (“FITZHUGH: Marriage Records”), then make the same notation in the bride’s file (“CONWAY: Marriage Records”), but in the enclosure/page number column, write “see Fitzhugh: Marriage Records, enc. 4.”

Another option: Family groups

This second filing system is a bit more detailed, but coordinates with the couples listed on your pedigree chart. Start by making a family group sheet for every couple on your pedigree chart. (Download charts for free at <>.) Then follow these steps:

1. Every couple on your pedigree charts gets a file folder.

2. Label the folder with the names of the couple (using the wife’s maiden name), such as “Christopher C. GREGORY and Mary STUART.”

3. List names of the couple’s children on the outside of the file folder for quick reference (optional).

4. When a child marries, begin a file folder for that marriage. If a child never marries, his or her documents will remain in the file of the parents.

5. File folders either alphabetically by the husband’s name or using a numbering system (see box, next page).

To make organizing and finding documents within the folder easy, keep a copy of the family group sheet up front to serve as a table of contents. Here’s how it works:

• For each fact you enter on the family group sheet, assign it a corresponding footnote number.

• Record the footnotes/sources on the back of the family group sheet or on a separate sheet.

• Assign the same footnote number to the actual page of notes or photocopy of the document that gave you the fact, using the footnote number as a page number.

• File documents and notes numerically.

Let’s look at an example. On one family’s group sheet, all the data with footnote number 1 came from Madison County, Va., Marriage Register, volume 1, page 12, on microfilm number 23595 from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. I made a photocopy of the record for my files. In the upper right corner of the photocopy, I wrote a number 1, the same as the footnote number. Now the page gets filed right behind the family group sheet.

During a visit to the Old Fork Episcopal Church graveyard in Ashland, Va., I made notes of tombstone inscriptions. After recording the facts on my family group sheet and giving it the next footnote number (2), I also put this number on the upper-right corner of my notes and filed it behind the copy of the marriage record. When I received a copy of an obituary, I followed the same procedure, recording the data on my family group sheet, giving it footnote and page number 3, then placing it behind the notes from the Old Fork Episcopal Church graveyard. And so on.

Now when I want to find a document in this filing system, I just check my footnotes and citations on the family group sheet, then I go straight to the document with that number.

Again, you’ll want to take your notes according to this filing system. Use a separate sheet of paper or note-taking form for each couple or family group. If you find a document that covers an ancestral person or couple other than the one you’re currently researching, either make a photocopy for the other family group’s file, or add a sheet of paper with the source citation written on it and a notation cross-referencing the document to where you’ve filed it.

For example, let’s say you have a deed in which Thomas Benton Montgomery is selling land to Reuben McMasters. Both are your ancestors. You can photocopy or take notes from the deed, then place one copy in the Thomas Benton Montgomery and wife file and one copy in the Reuben McMasters and wife file. Or you can put the deed in, say, the Montgomery file, then make a cross-reference sheet for the McMasters file. Note first the information from the deed on the Montgomery family group sheet, assign the information a footnote number, and cite the source on the back. Put the footnote number somewhere on the deed as a page number, then file it numerically with the other documents.

In the McMasters file, follow the same procedure of recording the information on the family group sheet, assigning it the next footnote number and citing your source. Instead of having the deed to file, however, just use a sheet of paper: Write the deed’s reference information, then use the footnote number you used on the McMasters family group sheet as your file/page number. On the paper, write “See Thomas Benton MONTGOMERY and wife file, number, — for a copy of the deed.”

The problem you’ll run into with this note-taking method is when you’re photocopying several pages, such as from a book of cemetery transcriptions, that list several individuals and families. It may not be feasible to make duplicate copies of all the pages for each couple’s folder or numerous cross-reference sheets. In that case, you may want to make a locality folder and put the cemetery transcriptions in it, along with other similar documents that pertain to multiple families living in the same area.

For example, I’m researching the Shough family of Patrick County, Va. I have file folders for five Shough couples and their offspring and one for a Shough daughter who married a man with the surname Gregory. From a book of cemetery transcriptions for Patrick County, I photocopied a dozen pages about Shoughs and Gregorys. I made a file folder labeled “Patrick Co., Va.” and put the photocopies in it. Likewise I also put in the locality file notes I took when searching deed indexes for all the Shoughs and Gregorys who owned land in Patrick County, whether they were my ancestral couples or not.

Choose the system that’s right for you

If you’re just starting to trace your family tree, it’s best to start small and make files for every surname you’re researching. As you gather more information on a family or surname, expand to one of the other, more-detailed filing systems. If you’re not sure which one you think you’d like better, try using the filing method by surname and type of record for one or two surnames and the filing method by couple or family groups on one or two families. See which you like best. And, of course, you can adapt these systems to something that might suit you better, or use binders rather than file folders. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, as long as it’s working for you.

Just remember, getting organized is only half the battle — staying organized is the other half. But there’s no need to squirm or get nervous. You can gain control of your genealogy stacks in no rime and win the paper chase.

From the April 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine