It’s New Year’s Resolution Time Again – Organize Your Work

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I hope you had a wonderful holiday season. Looking ahead, it’s once again that time of year when we contemplate about our plan for a new year of genealogical work. In doing, so however, we may be aware that we may not have met some of our resolutions to be better organized researchers – you know, the ones you made if you read this annual article in January 2010!  If so, not to worry; we can’t receive too many reminders about how important it is to be organized in our research activities.

Did you, like me, make a New Year’s resolution last January to organize your research files and the piles or related papers decorating your work area floor, or perhaps your dining room table?  How successful were you in keeping your promises to yourself? Did you actually buy the office supplies, only to leave them sitting in the original store bags you regularly step over and around? Have you piled more research paperwork on top of them? Are they still in the trunk of your car?

I know I have made similar resolutions every year for many years, and the piles are still there under the eaves calling to me in the wee hours of the morning – but I don’t have any supplies in the trunk to the car – PROGRESS! I have done some filing and organizing in energetic moments during the year (probably when I had some deadline I was ignoring), so I am feeling virtuous enough to share the following tips with you (again!) as you also begin to fulfill your 2010 (let’s not even think about the ones from 2009) resolutions  - in 2011!

  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 lack space for a file cabinet – even a short narrow 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 “cleanup” 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 these actions until you have completed all of the piled-up papers and the carpet/chair/desk/table you forgot you owned can be seen once again
  5. When you are finished, congratulate yourself on a job well done, admire the new sense of spaciousness. Treat yourself to chocolate or wine – better yet both – 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 on our blog,,  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 available from

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