And Promises to Keep…

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Are you one of the many genealogists who ushered in the New Year with resolutions to be more organized? How successful have you been in keeping your promise to clean up the piles of papers on the floor, and best of all, organize, label, and use those file folders?

I think I have made a similar resolution every year for many years. This year, now well into my second year of retirement, I am finally making progress and have even looked – not touched yet, but looked – at the piles of papers under the eaves, not just those on my office floor. Having spent several mornings this week weeding through more than a few piles of documents and previous research notes, I am feeling virtuous enough to share some tips for you as you also begin to fulfill your resolutions 2008.

1. Before you file the first piece of paper, develop a clear and easily understandable organizational scheme for your file folders. How you file them should be based on what best supports your research and your work methods. You might choose to file by surname, by generation, by geographical location, or by time period. In addition to labeling the hanging file folder, clear labeling of individual file folders within hanging files will allow you to make adjustments in your filing scheme as your retrieval needs increase or become more sophisticated.

2. Take time for some fun. Visit your local office supply store to see what types of folders and storage systems are available. While at the store invest in a good label maker to produce consistent, readable labels. If you do not need a filing cabinet, or do not have space for one, look for stackable containers that will accommodate your folders and that will fit under your desk or table, on book shelves, or in your closet

3. Set up your new file container and folders based on the organizational scheme you have chosen.

4. Pace yourself over several sessions. In order to keep from being discouraged, set yourself an attainable goal for each “cleanupâ€? session. Tackle one pile at a time and place each document in its appropriate folder. IMPORTANT: Handle each document ONCE. Do NOT separate the pile into separate piles and then even more separate files until you have no more floor space and can’t reach the file container. To repeat – pick up the document ONCE. Place it in its appropriate file, adding new file folders and folder labels as necessary. Repeat until you have completed all of the piled up papers and the carpet/chair/desk/table you forgot you owned can be seen again

5. Once you are done, congratulate yourself on a job well done, admire the new sense of spaciousness. Treat yourself to chocolate. BUT…

6. Make a new resolution to prevent the dreaded piles from returning. This resolution will not be as difficult to accomplish as you might think if you employ one strategy in the future. As soon as possible after every research trip, write a research report “for the file.� In the report, set out your research findings, analyze their impact on your project, and set new goals for any future research on this person or topic. Attach to the report all the documents that pertain to the research just completed and immediately file in the appropriate folder. Voila! No piles of stray documents on the floor, no lost documents. Instead you have an easily retrievable report that will provide you with all of the information what you need for future research.

I invite each of you to comment on these tips and to share your successes in keeping the dreaded document pile-ups from taking over your workspace.

To help you in your organization of documents and research project materials as well add to your knowledge of research methodologies, you may want to consider the following titles:


  1. So true about the paperwork. My husband even made a new office for me with the geneology being the main reason for the room. I like you tips and plan on implementing them.


    Quote | Posted January 25, 2008, 12:20 am

  2. The books you list are wonderful reference books. But for organizing the piles I found the book by Sharon Carmack most helpful. Organizing your Family History Search. In it Sharon introduces several different filing systems so that you can pick the one you think you will use, not just set up and go back to what you were doing!

    Quote | Posted January 25, 2008, 11:34 am

  3. Carolyn! Just found this blog and was delighted to see your name. Looks like you are having fun. It is great to still be able to get genealogical research advice from you!! PC

    Quote | Posted January 26, 2008, 11:28 am

  4. I sat down just last night and planned out my organization system.

    I’ve spent most of my adult life and a lot of my childhood organizing – files, books, things. Much of my career has been built around organizing everything from paper to other people’s thoughts.

    I’ve also read books, articles in magazines and on web-sites, and talked to others about organizing genealogical material. Everyone has an opinion or technique and many are much more complicated than necessary. It makes me nuts to see all these books on the market – they are generally too expensive and not nearly as helpful as the reviews want the consumer to believe.

    All one needs to do is rely on two things you’ve known since 1st grade (or before) – the alphabet and numbers. Then realize what you are dealing are simply categories – people in the form of individuals and families, places, resources and reference material, etc.

    Don’t spend a fortune on supplies either. Banker’s Boxes are great. A book shelf works as a lateral file and can hold other items as well AND are easy to expand. Get file folders with tabs all in the same position – left-sided if using a lateral system – otherwise it doesn’t matter. (Same position is neater and it’s much easier to “thumb” through them.) As research progresses one can make a decision about a formal cabinet. All those clever containers made for desk top filing are nice but may end up being wasted money. I suggest something inexpensive and just one or two for your current research.

    The bottom line is: save your book money for something that will really help you get organized. Basic supplies – folders, some labels, page protectors for documents you want to keep clean (I use brads to hold these in the file folders), pencils, and maybe some colored highlighters/pens/pencils are all you really need.

    Then set down and decide what will work best and WRITE THAT DOWN. If you use colored labels and dots, put one of each color on a page and identify by writing on the label what it represents – make notes to the side. Type up your notes (modifying if necessary) and keep where you can see it or get to it.

    For my own system:

    I don’t use labels on individuals and families – I just write on the tab with a pencil. If I’m reusing an old folder I use a white label to cover anything that can’t be erased.

    I color code using dots. This way I can identify an female individual by birth family and married family. Yes, you’re limited by color choices but that’s dealt with by other creative coding – maybe at the grandparent level (paternal and maternal).

    I use labels for some of the reference material. Say, red for locations, blue for resources, yellow for cemeteries.

    When I start from scratch or take on disaster recovery I start through the material by separating into groups – big broad groups first, then back through these and get more specific. (As many times as it takes!)

    Doing it all at once (but not necessarily all in one sitting) will helps the concentration and I’m much more likely to catch duplicates and nonsense before everything is committed to a folder.

    Quote | Posted January 27, 2008, 12:18 am

  5. I found that the easiest way to organize is to go by family and then break it down into subcatagories.

    For example: I broke down each last name I was researching into death records, marriage records, birth records, census records, etc.

    The best way to keep it all is to put it into a flame resistant file box. I learned the hard way that fire is all too common and research can be lost in a second. Luckily, I did not lose my research but the lesson is well learned.

    Now the trick that I am still trying to figure out is how to keep all that research organized as I try to move.

    Quote | Posted January 30, 2008, 12:29 pm

  6. Hey!! I am thoroughly impressed with your knowledge of Marriage Records. Your insights into this article about Marriage Records was well worth the the time to read it. I thank you for posting such awsome information. Signed James Kryten on this Day Wednesday.

    Quote | Posted March 12, 2008, 5:07 pm

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