There’s no getting around it: genealogy research requires organization. And, unfortunately, the more you research, the more organised you need to be.
The following are ideas you could use to help you store your genealogical information, but, in the end, you’ll need to have a system that works for you. The sooner you put this system in place the better.
Even if you are ultimately going to make digital records of your genealogy research on a computer, you will still accumulate a great deal of paper material. In addition, there may be times when you don’t want to type all the content you find from a record into a computer programme. Even if you scan everything, it’s a good idea to have an original copy handy, and be able to locate it easily. You never know when your computer’s hard drive will crash, taking with it your records. Remember back up everything and back up regularly (daily or if you are paranoid – hourly). Also will your records stored on CD or DVD be able to be read by computers in the future which may have different working systems? Remember DOS! Organizing paper files has two purposes. First, it’s important to be able to locate documents quickly and easily. Second, you’re trying to preserve the information, to keep old documents from falling apart or getting lost.
A spin-off effect of well-organized files, is that future genealogy researchers in your family will be able to pick up where you left off. They’ll thank you as much for that as for your research (well we hope they will anyway).
When you start out, the easiest thing to do is to put all of these in a folder with their related surname. Eventually, this will not be good enough.
When your genealogy records can no longer be managed by a single folder, it’s time to rethink the whole system. It’s best to start as early in the process as possible, and to pick a system you can use for all your research going forward. And, if you choose, your system can be used for all your files (source files, working files and electronic files).
First, you need to think about using a unique numbering system. A unique numbering system gives each person in your research their own unique number. If you think your genealogy can be managed by a person’s name, think again. How many of your relatives have the same name? While you may not have any duplicates right now, believe me, go back a few generations, and you’ll have a whole bunch of them.
At this point, you may want to stop and consider whether you want to work backwards in time, or, if you want to work forwards in time. You’ll also want to consider if you want to do only your direct line, or work on “collateral” lines (all the families of your aunts and uncles).
Whether you work forwards or backwards in time, you will need to pick a starting person and an ending person. If you are working backwards, you pick a person, and follow that person’s ancestors backward in time. This is an ascendant genealogy. If you start with a person and work forward, you’re taking a descendant approach.
If you are looking at all the collateral lines, and wanting to go as far back as possible, well, you’re looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
The most common numbering system used world-wide is the Ahnentafel system. In this system, you would assign yourself the number 1. Then you would go backwards in your lineage, counting your father as number 2, and your mother as number 3. Going further back, your paternal grandfather would be number 4, your paternal grandmother would be number 5. Your mother’s father would be number 6, and her mother would be number 7. In this system, all the males in your family would have even numbers and the females would be the odd numbers (well, except if you, the origin point of the numbering, are a male, you would be the only “odd” male in the numbering).
In this system, a person’s father’s number is always twice the person’s number. The person’s mother’s number is twice plus one. There are a few drawbacks to this system, especially if you are looking at collateral lines in your genealogy. What number would you give your sister? Or your father’s brother? Therefore the Ahnentafel system only works if you are working back in a direct line. If you are working on large trees without a computer then you can add letters of the alphabet so your father would be 2 and his brother 2A and his sister 2B. This way you know that anything with a 2 in the front is a sibling to your father.
However if you are using a computer and have a genealogy software programme it is easy just to use their numbering system which the programme automatically assigns. You can then carry this number into their storage system.
Colour coding also helps. So all files which are black covered could be your mother’s maternal line, red covers for your mother’s paternal line, blue covers for your father’s maternal line etc.
Your source files are the master copies (or originals) of all the information you’ve found for your genealogy. There are usually three main categories of source files:
primary sources; (i.e. birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, parish registers and photographs)
secondary sources; copies of pages from genealogy
books, school records, electoral rolls, etc.)
correspondence. These files should never leave home! Take care of your master copies.
Plastic sheet protectors (acid-free) are a very good investment. This will allow you to view documents without having to handle them and damaging them, plus, you can easily catalogue the document (putting an identifier or number on a label on the sheet protector and on the document itself), and move it as your organization system changes.
Make copies of whatever material you think you may need to take along when doing genealogy research. Your copies can go into your working files. Don’t ever assume that any of your files or documents are easily replaceable; think of them as gold that can’t be easily replaced. Even modern record repositories aren’t immune from fire, earthquakes, or changing political attitudes which might prevent you easily accessing records which you have been able to do so in the past.
For old documents, it’s good to make a copy onto acid free paper. Handle the originals as little as possible, or not at all (plastic sheet protectors again are very useful with this).
Do I remember people’s unique identifying numbers? Not really. So, In the front of my binder, I keep a current index of people’s names with their numbers. Then, I just file the document under their ID number. Each number has a tab to divide it, and numbers are kept in sequence.
You’ll likely want copies of some of your source files so you can make notes on them, and in a form that you can take with you when you go to libraries or various places to work. Notes you take at libraries or cemeteries can also live in your working files.
I tend to have working files largely sorted only by surname.
When I make a copy of a source I find in a library, I keep in my working folder until I process it into the correct place in my source file. If I still have things to research about that source, I leave a copy in my working file until I no longer need it. When I’m done “working” with the item, I usually put it in my source files. I try to keep my working files down to the essentials, so they’re still easy to use on an ongoing basis. In your working files, you may also have just a simple index or list of the highlights of your genealogy. If you are working exclusively in paper, you probably will want to take some time to have a summary sheet with a run-down of names, dates, and missing information (which could be a list of your research goals). This will help you keep in mind your current research priorities.
Your digital files can be anything from an electronic backup of all of your hard copy files, to a database of just your genealogy essentials.
I like to make as much as possible digital. I like to scan primary sources, and keep them in electronic folders with IDs that match their paper counterparts.
For saving primary documents, I scan them all into PDF files. For photos, I also scan them, and store them in folders based upon the album they came from. I also keep a log of all the photos, with details such as whether it has a negative, who is in the photo, and when it was taken.
My goal with these sorts of documents is to be able to share them with any family member easily, regardless of what type of technology they had. For people without a computer, I simply print out the document or make photo prints and mail it to them.
Master Log Files
I use log files for things my database can’t really handle. Some of these started as a spreadsheet, but, I have now set-up separate databases. Some still are simply spreadsheets. These are essentially tables of information I need to track, but, standard genealogy software doesn’t really deal with. I know some genealogical programme have this facility already built into them but I began doing this on paper and the spreadsheets have just become an extension of this and I feel in control of my researching.
For example, I have a log for correspondence. I list who I’ve contacted, when, and what I’ve inquired about, and date when I received a response.
You can keep a log of things you’re looked into that turned into dead ends, so you don’t go looking there again.
You might also want a log for discrepancies and inconsistencies. These are things that crop up from time to time. Birth dates that don’t match, or spellings of names are different from source to source. These are things you want to keep an eye out for, or find evidence to help you figure out which is the best I correct information.
There are many reasons for discrepancies. Sometimes you can determine the reason and explain the difference. Discrepancies without explanations are lines of inquiry, and you will want to know what to investigate, you don’t want to put unconfirmed information in your “official” records. You don’t want family legends to be treated as facts.
Work out what suits you best and develop a system your family or a repository you may leave your research with, will be able to understand. People wonder why I put explanation notes on documents but it is not for me to understand but for future generations to appreciate.
Name photographs but don’t hide them away in photograph albums. Copy them and share them with the rest of the family or donate them to museums or repositories in the area where you relatives lives. The more copies out there the more chance they will have to survive.