Becoming an Organized Genealogist

Organizing genealogical research seems to be an on-going and forever topic. I remember it being discussed back when I first started in 1980 and it remains a hot topic.

I will be the first to admit that organization is one of my strong points. I’m a “bean counter” and have always been able to easily visualize patterns and how to arrange things. (Just so you don’t think I’m a total braggart, I am also the first to admit that I don’t have a creative thought in my brain. I appreciate art and music, but both are way beyond my abilities.)

The fact is that, in the 35 years that I’ve been researching my family tree, the organization methods I use haven’t changed at all. Only the receptacles for the information have changed.

Back in 1980, my first documents, correspondence and photos immediately went into file folders that quickly turned into off-the-shelf notebooks, with each item cataloged by family surname.

Surname notebooks then were arranged in ABC order by the name of the head of household. I also decided to house each document under the family head where the person resided at the time the record was created.

For example, a birth record for “X” was filed in the section containing his/her father’s household. However, when “X” married, the marriage record was the first item in the new adult household. I chose to keep the system consistent using only the male heads of households. If there was more than one marriage involved, the records for the later married households remained in the original first-marriage household.

A death certificate would also be filed in “X”s adult household. If I found documents or photos for children who reached adulthood, but never married, they remained as part of their parents’ life records.

Eventually, the notebooks became top quality archival albums because I was lucky enough to inherit many old family photos and documents. I wanted to make sure that I, the current caretaker, provided the best care I could until they pass to future generations.

University Products Archival Albums

(By the way, the only company I have ever used is University Products in Holyoke, Massachusetts. They aren’t inexpensive, but some of their customers include the Library of Congress and top ranked universities and they carry almost anything you could ever need in terms of archival supplies.)

I have further sectioned the albums and labeled them by family branch, so I have four groupings – one each for my paternal and maternal branches and one each for my husband’s paternal and maternal branches.

Through the years, I’ve gone digital and, if you are a follower of Empty Branches, you know that I just completed the switch-over. I thinned out my archival albums considerably by chucking all the photocopies I had because they were deteriorating to the point when I could barely read some of the pages anymore. If a scanned version of the record was available online, I saved that instead. All of my original photos and documents are safely back in their archival album homes.

I ended up with about 10,300 images. How are these organized? Exactly the same way as the earlier paper files – by surnames. The surnames are all grouped sub-grouped under an umbrella folder called “Genealogy.” Now, for some families, I have few photos and/or documents and one surname folder on my computer works perfectly. It is small enough that I can easily find what I need.

However, some surnames have tons of items in the folders, like “Stufflebean,” home to thousands of photos and documents. I renamed each digital image with enough of a description that I knew to whom the document or photo related and what the circumstances were, say, if it was a family reunion picture or something along those lines.

I started to save each image using this format: SurnameFirstnameEventDate. However, I dropped that for a first name, surname, event and date format because I quickly discovered that I would rather hunt for a photo of my father-in-law through a list of 125 “EdwardStufflebean”s than scroll through 2,564 Stufflebean images to get to the middle of the alphabet and look for the picture of Ed that I wanted.  A suggestion in a Facebook group was made to me to tag my photos and I might start doing that, but for now, this system works very well in terms of locating what I need.

I also considered creating separate computer folders for each male head of household when a surname folder was large, but decided against it. The difficulty with that system is that if a document involves several family members who are each adult male household heads (for example, I have several files of lawsuits) or a photo has multiple families in it (like a family reunion), then it isn’t as easy to determine where to house the record.

I use this format exclusively with all of my direct lines. What about collateral lines, like my cousins’ families? I could set up separate sections in both the archival albums and the computer folders, by surname, but I have chosen to house them under our common ancestor. Therefore, my first cousins’ family photos and records are filed in the sections set aside for our common grandfather. However, digital items are named with their surnames to be able to easily identify them.

I even have items inherited from my great grand-aunt and first cousin once removed, who were respectively, my grandfather’s aunt and his first cousin. They are filed in the section pertaining to my great-great grandfather because that is our common ancestor.

There is certainly more than one way to organize family history information, but I have found that my method is simple, easy to set up and worked equally as well in the pre-internet era as it does today.

How do I back up my work? I have my files on my hard drive, on an external hard drive, on a large flash drive and in the cloud with three different companies, two of which are by subscription.

Am I paranoid? Maybe a little, but I have no intention of losing all my digital items to one computer crash. In case of a fire, family running out the door has strict instructions to carry as many archival albums as possible with them. 🙂



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