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Friday, August 21, 2009

How I Organized My Genealogy Paperwork (or How I spent my summer vacation!)

I've read a few other folks' ideas on the 'best way' to organize your genealogy. Honestly, the 'best way' is the one that works for you. Organization is the key to survival in any aspect of life!

You already know that genealogy research generates mountains of papers, from seriously important copies of vital records and heirloom family notes and letters, to simple “notes to self” on ideas of where to research next on a family line. And I’m sure you’ve already figured out that it sure would be nice to have a simple organization system so that you could, at a moments notice, find your 3rd great grandmother’s death certificate (did I file it under her married name or her maiden name?), or the marriage certificate that you came across of someone that you’re just sure belongs to your family, but you’re not quite certain of the connection yet.

I’ve organized and re-organized my genealogy papers a couple of times until I’ve finally put together a system that works for me. I won't be so pretentious as to say that its the best way to organize your stuff, only that, as I said, it works for me. Here’s how it goes:

1. Family Binder. I keep one large notebook. The first page is a quarter fan chart of my father’s ancestry, and the second page is a quarter fan chart of my mother’s. In one quick glance I can see the names of 7 generations of each side of my family.

Next I have a family group sheet printed out for every head of household that appears on each of those fan charts. I include notes and sources on these printouts so that I can quickly verify my information sources without having to fire up my laptop. These family group sheets are organized alphabetically in the notebook by the last name of the husband.

At the top of each family group sheet, I have penciled in either “O” for my father’s side (the Osmers), or “B” for my mother’s side (the Burges), along with that head of household’s relation to either my mother or father. For example, “O-5gg”, at the top of the page would quickly tell me that the husband of that family was my father’s fifth great-grandfather. With this system, I can find any direct line ancestor very quickly.

If I am going to be taking a research trip to another state, I run reports for each county that I might be near, of who in my family file was born, married or died there, and I include these lists in my notebook right behind the fan charts, with a post-it note tab for the county. Again, a very quick way of seeing who I might possibly find information on when in a specific area.

2. File Folders. Everything else goes in file folders. First I numbered major category headings that pretty much cover all the papers I’ve collected. My headings are: 1. To Do; 2. People; 3. Places; 4. Vital Records; 5. Publications; 6. Organizations; 7. How To.

Within each of these major headings, I have several sub-headings, and number the folders accordingly. For example, my section number 4-Vital Records, has the sub folders numbered 4.1 Census; 4.2 Birth; 4.3 Marriage; 4.4 Death; 4.5 Military; 4.6 Land; 4.9 Wills & Estates.

And some of have even more folders within them. Section 4.4 Death also contains a folder for 4.4CERT for Death Certificates, 4.4FC for Funeral Cards, and 4.4OB for obituaries.

So now, I file all my birth certificates in folder 4.2-Births, and all Death certificates in folder 4.4CERT. But wait - there’s one other step that I take before I file anything. A database!!! Every piece of paper that goes into any file then gets labeled with its own unique identifying number, which includes the folder number plus a unique three digit number (starting with 001). So the first birth record that I put in the folder 4.2 Births will be labeled 4.2-001 and then in my database I will identify that Item 4.2-001 is a birth certificate, for Jane Doe, and include other information like the date of the certificate, location etc (usually everything required for a good source citation). Items are numbered consecutively by the order they are entered into the file. I can easily find anything by doing a quick search in the database (done in Excel) for either a name, or a document type, to find any entry I have made.

I’ve found this to be so much easier than trying to remember if I should put a woman’s papers in with her husband, or in with her father, or what to do if a document lists more than one person... Doesn’t matter, I just slap a number on it, record it in my database and file it by document type.

Another example is my section number 3 - Places. The folders within that are locations, and usually include locale information that may cover several families, or local histories or other tidbits. The sub folders are broken down by state, i.e., 3CT for Connecticut, or 3OH for Ohio. And within a state folder I might also break it down by county, so the labeling would then be 3OH.Ash for Ashtabula County, Ohio, or 3OH.Gea for Geauga County, Ohio.

And because there are always things that seem to defy categorization, within the 2-People section, I have a folder called 2.3 Surnames. Within that section, I have dozens of folders with labeled with surnames in the following fashion: 2.3BUR -Burge, 2.3THO - Thompson, etc. I just use the beginning code when I enter an item into my database, so that I know exactly which folder I put it into. If I get an e-mail from someone with some interesting information on a family, I may print it out and file it this way in a surname file.

My advice is to take some time to think through what folder names you need for your organization, and make yourself a list, and number them. And be religious about assigning a unique number to, and entering any new items into your database. Print out a copy of the database from time to time, and keep a backup someplace safe as well, if you don’t have an online backup service.

There are several excellent books and articles written by other folks on how to organize your genealogy. It is definitely worth it to read through some of them and find one that you think will fit your needs and organizational style. All the research in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t find it when you need it! I wish you the best of luck!


Jasia said...

This sounds like a wonderful system. I had no problem following your logic. My problem is that a huge chunk of my genealogy collection (I'd guess 70% or more) is digital and only exists on my hard drives and in various different formats to boot. How I wish I'd thought ahead and come up with an organizing system when I was first starting out. At this point to go back and rename every digital file would be nearly impossible.

I envy you your organization!

Jud Wooters said...

I'm in the same boat as Jasia, and have a system that works pretty well for me.

I have sectioned off each grandfather in my and my wife's family as family groups. Then, within those groups, I have folders labeled by RINs for each individual. Inside of each folder is a digital copy of the document that contains genealogical information about them. This means that sometimes I've got 15 copies of one digital image. Prior to cheap hard-drive space, this would have been a real hassle.

I created an Excel database with some VBA coding that maps the folder structure and keeps track of what images are in what folder. I can just push a button to reconcile what's listed in my Excel spreadsheet and what actually exists in the folders. Excel creates the individual folders and copies or deletes images out of them automatically.

I use Legacy as my Genealogy software, which is built on an Access database, so the data can be accessed from outside programs. I wrote SQL that queries the underlying Legacy database and pulls the filenames of all the images associated to individuals in my database.

Each of these pieces are, right now, still a bit jerry-rigged together, but it makes maintaining my sourcing and image repository very easy. I plan to put all the coding together soon so that my Excel database is actually updated by Legacy and folder structures are self maintained (no more entering information even into Excel).

Jasia said...

Wow, Jud! That's awesome. And that's a lot of coding knowledge and talent on your part. Me, I'm allergic to coding. I try to avoid it as much as possible ;-)

I do like your reasoning about having umpteen copies of a given document since hard drive space is so relatively inexpensive. I've been trying to avoid all that redundancy but maybe I should just embrace it instead.

Good food for thought.


Jud Wooters said...

I finally just finished the program. I push a button and it updates all individuals and sources in the spreadsheet from the Legacy database. Then, I push another button and it reconciles all the images in the RIN labeled folders.

I wonder if the Legacy folks would be interested in a tool like this for users. Would be an easy addin (just skip the Excel spreadsheet and do it from Legacy). If there were a better way to organize images I'd love to hear about it.

Mavis said...

A few years ago I came off of a very extended research break. Since doing so, the one thing I've struggled with the most is the organization.

You're right, I need to come up with a plan that works for me and just sit down and do it.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your suggestions. They have been so helpful! But more than that, it gave me 'permission' to do it differently from the norm, and to find a method that actually works for me and my goals. I can't thank you enough!! :)