Genealogy Filing Systems

Here's another secret of successful genealogists: They're organized. You won't get far if you can't find your research notebook and charts!

Of course, getting—and keeping—your research in order is a challenge for even the tidiest family historian. So, in the April 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine, we kicked off a contest to help paper-plagued genealogists. Readers were invited to send tales and photos of their family history-filing disasters—the three most convincing would win some much-needed expert organizational assistance.

Two runners-up, Brenda Seekins of Hartland, Maine, and Dorothy Akin Jens of Seneca, SC, each received a copy of my book Organizing Your Family History Search. The winner, Lindy Sheehan of Solana Beach, Calif., received an organizational makeover from me. Here's how Lindy described her problem:

"When I first began my quest for my ancestors in 1994 BC (before computers), I was organized. Since I went online in 1995, the piles really began to materialize. Now the piles… and boxes are stashed everywhere, including the trunk of my car. Things got even worse when I moved in with my elderly father two years ago, since he is the neatest person I ever met. Piles of papers were not tolerated, so I had to get clever. When he turned 90, he gave up driving, thankfully, and gave me the keys to his car. Immediately, two boxes of genealogy papers were put in the trunk…. Next, I began shoving boxes of papers under his bed…. Now it has gotten to the point where I have lost track of what I do and do not have…. The last straw was when I realized it would probably take less time to order another copy of a death certificate than it would take to find it in the multiple boxes and piles I have stashed in the house, garage and the cars. Help me! Please!!!"

Sound familiar? I think we've all run into the problem of being taken over by paper at one time or another. Here's what I suggested to Lindy:

Short-Term Plan

  1. Set up file folders according to surname and type of record: SMITH: Census Records, SMITH: Birth Records, SMITH: Marriage Records and so on. Make file folders for the records you think you've collected; you can always create another file if you find a record you didn't realize you had.

  2. Once you've made up the basic file folders, tackle one stack or box a week—no more and no less. Even if you get through a box and think, oh, I can do another one, don't. You want to have a feeling of accomplishment each week, so it's important to finish a stack or box each week and not leave one half finished.

Long-Term Plan

  1. After you've gotten all of the paper in your stacks and boxes into their respective files, you can organize the documents within the file.

  2. After you get the papers within the file folder organized, go through the information in the files and make sure you've got everything recorded on your charts.

Here's how Lindy has progressed with her organizational makeover:

"I love all your suggestions, and when I get back from the family reunion, I plan to dive into this mess and get it organized. You really have given me the tools to work with. I have purchased more file folders and am attempting to organize some of this disaster as I look for items. I sold my dad's car, so I need to get the boxes out of the trunk before the new owner drives off with them."

For more guidance on getting your research in order, see Winning the Paper Chase in the April 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine and Organizing Your Family History Search (Betterway Books, $17.99).