Your Most Important New Year’s Resolution – Get (and Stay) Organized

By: Carolyn L. Barkley



I find it hard to believe that it’s once again time for my annual get-organized-article. Facebook has recently been full of genealogists working on their goals for 2012. Are you one of them? If so, I hope that one (or more) of your goals has to do with organization of your papers and files.


Did you, like me, promise yourself last January that you would organize your research files and the piles of 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 that 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, but many of the offending piles are still under the eaves calling to me in increasingly strident tones in the wee hours of the morning – but I don’t have any supplies in the back of my Jeep. I actually accomplished a filing and organization project last spring, prior to attending the National Genealogical Conference in Charleston, South Carolina. In preparing for research into the Rowell family (of Charleston, and Marion County, South Carolina), I decided that it was a perfect time to put my organizational suggestions into action. The end result was a three-ring binder organized into almost twenty Rowell family groups. Preceded by a pedigree chart summarizing the family relationships, each separate section included a family group sheet, copies of census records and other documents, and applicable pages from the Find a Grave website. While researching in the South Carolina Room at the Charleston County Public Library, I was easily able to move from family group to family group, locate all pertinent documents, and add information as needed. (Yes, I could have taken a digital version with me, but sometimes I find it easier to have the printed page when I’m researching and to make the updates to the electronic files later). Based on that experience, I plan to create several other notebooks, perhaps one in anticipation of my research trip to Salt Lake City later this month. The Rowell notebook experience allows me to feel virtuous enough to share, once again,  the following tips with you as you develop your 2012 genealogical resolutions.

  1. Before you file the first piece of paper, develop a clear and easily understandable organizational scheme for your files. My choice was family group sheets, but how you organize your files 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.
  2. I suggest that you create and maintain your family research files digitally, printing them as needed for a specific research trip. (Some of us exist without paper better than others, and that’s okay.) If you are keeping the files on your computer, make sure your file names are not cryptic (you’ll want to know what they contain at-a-glance later) and group them in equally well-named folders. (And always – backup, backup, backup!) If you are keeping the files in printed form, decide whether you will use notebooks, as I did in the Rowell example, or hanging file folders. If you choose the latter format, in addition to labeling the main folder, clearly label individual file folders within each hanging file. This combination of files and labels will allow you to make adjustments in your filing scheme as your retrieval needs increase or become more sophisticated.
  3. Take time for some fun. Visit your local office supply store to see what types of organizational software is available, as well as what physical folders and storage systems are available for print materials. While at the store, invest in a good label maker to produce consistent, readable labels for your physical files. 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. You should also buy a portable hard-drive to keep your backup files safe, or consider moving them to a storage utility such as DropBox or iCloud.
  4. As you begin to set up your files and folders, pace yourself over several sessions. In order to keep from being discouraged, set yourself an attainable goal for each “cleanup” session. Tackle one pile of unorganized documents at a time, and place each document in its appropriate folder, or scan it into an appropriate file and 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 a document ONCE. Analyze its contents and decide where it belongs. Place it or scan it into its appropriate file and folder. If you are scanning, decide if you must keep the original document. Ask yourself if there is anything intrinsically valuable in the physical copy, or is the information contained in it the most important thing. If the latter, you may wish to discard the print copy. Repeat these actions, over time, 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 and admire the new spaciousness of your room. 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 basic 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 scan or place in the appropriate file or 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. I know that this blog makes it difficult to post comments, so please feel free to contact me via Facebook or my direct email address.

To help with your organizational process, as well add to your knowledge of research methodologies, you may want to consider the following titles:

     (CD-ROM), by Michael Hait (2008, repr. 2012).

  • Organizing Your Family History Search, by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Betterway Books, 1999).
  • The Organized Family Historian, by Ann Carter Fleming (Rutledge Hill Press, 2004).





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