Friday, September 23, 2011

Getting Organized

A genealogist's organization system is extremely personal. What works for one person may not work for another. In the years since I started researching, I've been through several systems and continue to change my system of organization as my needs change. The recent assignment for the US Records Study Group and conversations that followed it has led me to reevaluate my system and implement some changes to make it more efficient.

I started using surname binders earlier this year. My surname binders are set up based on Dear Myrtle's system. Basically you take the nearest direct-line family with the surname you're setting up and you make a family group sheet for them. All documents related to that particular family are filed behind their family group sheet, starting with the marriage record and moving forward chronologically through other records (birth records for the children, census, land, military, etc) to the death records of both of the parents on the sheet.

The next family group sheet in the binder is the one with the husband from the first sheet as the child and his parents as the parents. You file the records the same way as the previous family. You continue adding family group sheets followed by associated documents up the line of ancestry until you reach the last known family. If, in the future, you are able to continue the line beyond where you stopped, you simply add another family group sheet and keep going.

Some of my surname binders. The binders are various colors because I chose to buy gently used ones from the thrift stores rather than new ones to save money. Also pictured is my education binder (the big unmarked blue one) where I store syllabi and handouts from conferences, notes from classes and webinars, and printouts of articles, discussions and blog posts that are helpful to my research. One of the scrapbooks I'm working on can be seen on the far right.

At the back of the binder is a section for collaterals, the siblings of the male head of each family group sheet. This is where I plan to veer off from Dear Myrtle's system. Since some of the families in my tree have large numbers of children (and sometimes multiple marriages with more children as well), the collaterals are taking over my binders.

After debating about the best way to handle this, I've decided to move the collaterals to their own binders. So my Sweat line will have a main surname binder documenting my direct-line ancestors and a second surname binder just for the collaterals. Since I just decided to do this, it will be a couple weeks before I have this completed.

In order to deal with the many other papers I came across that didn't quite fit with my surname binders, I've began using a filing system. This is based on Karen Clifford's method as taught in her Organizing for Success webinar, but adapted to my preferences. I have hanging files for each surname and each locality they are found in. Each of these hanging files contains multiple folders.

My newly implemented genealogy filing system to handle files that don't quite fit into my surname binders. Now that I have a system to handle these papers in an organized manner, I can get them out of my miscellaneous genealogy papers file. I ran out of hanging files and file folders before I was able to completely set up my system so this is only a portion of what it will eventually contain.

Surname files contain folders for:
  • Research logs-Since I generally research an individual or family in one research period, these are filed alphabetically in the folder.
  • Clues-This is where I store hints that I've picked up from message boards, online trees, unsourced published genealogies, comments from family members, blogs, etc. As of yet, these are unproven.
  • Possibles-Every once in a while, I come across someone that is probably related to the family, but I just haven't figured out how yet. This is where these individuals are put until I'm able to work out the relationship.
  • Notes-As I'm researching, I often take notes on other records I want to check, things I want to follow up on later and questions I may have.
  • Documents-If I have a document that references multiple individuals with the same surname, I file it here. For documents that mention someone found in my main surname binders (not the collateral ones), I will make a copy for the binder if I feel it is important enough to include. If more than one surname is on the document, I will either make a copy for the other surname's folder or cross-reference it so I'm aware of it.
Locality files contain folders for:
  • History-Knowing the history of a particular area can help you determine what records are available and also why your ancestor did certain things. This is also where I file notes on boundary changes so if an ancestor disappears from the area suddenly and I'm pretty sure they didn't move anywhere, I know to check the new place.
  • Books-This folder includes a list of books on the area that I'm aware of, as well as notes from those that I have read.
  • Visit-One day in the future, I'd like to visit the areas my ancestors lived in. I've already visited a few. This is where I file notes on places in the area I want to check, including cemeteries, libraries, archives, historical societies, etc. The notes include specific resources I want to check at that particular place in the locality. If I get the opportunity to visit a certain area, I can just pull out the visit file for that locality and build my itinerary and research plan(s).
In addition to my surname binders and new filing system, I also use genealogy programs on my computer to stay organized. I started out using MyHeritage's Family Tree Builder, but have recently been playing with Legacy. I like Family Tree Builder because it is very visual. I usually have it open while I'm researching and I can see at a glance a couple generations of ancestors and descendants for a given person.

Legacy isn't as visual, but I'm finding I prefer how it handles sources. While I can include my sources in Family Tree Builder, they're linked to the individual. Legacy lets you link sources to specific events (for instance a marriage record to a couple's marriage). I can still see a list of all sources related to a person, but I can also choose to only look at sources related to a specific event in that person's life.


    1. I am impressed. Great ideas here that I am going to have to explore!

    2. Your system sounds great! And because you have adapted systems to suit your research style, it will work for you!

    3. Sounds like a good system. I like the way you took what you needed out of the "established" systems to make it your own.

    4. Locality files/binders is also something that I have branched out into - very useful for a variety of things that don't really belong to the family binders. Major families get their own file box, where I put family group binders plus a hanging file folder for documents.

    5. It seems as if you have found and adapted a good variety of approaches that you have molded into a coherent system that works for you. And you have added some nice wrinkles of your own. Good work.

    6. This totally makes sense, especially the part about collateral lines, as in my dad's family, this is a huge problem because of the multiple marriages/siblings. Sounds like you are figuring out what will work best for you. Great job!