Tips for Organizing Your Genealogy Research

There's no getting around it: genealogy research requires organization. And, unfortunately, the more you research, the better your organization needs to be.

The following are tips, but, in the end, you'll need to have a system that works for you. If the system doesn't work for you, you probably won't use it, which defeats the purpose of having a system. Consider your habits and choose a method that will be easy on your memory and makes sense to you.

Paper Files

Even if you are ultimately going to make digital records of your genealogy research, you will accumulate a great deal of paper materials. In addition, there may be times when you don't want to type all the content you find. Even if you scan everything, it's a good idea to have an original handy, and be able to locate it easily. You never know when your computer's hard drive will crash, taking with it your records.

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 side 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.

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. If your quest started as mine did, with boxes and boxes of photos, it may've already been too big to simply sort this way.

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. Give them unique ID numbers.

But, how to assign numbers? Do you "make it up," or do you use a system?

If you "make it up," it will help if you use a system to prevent duplicates or other errors. for example, if you just give the new person you just discovered the next number in your counting, what if you forget which number you're on? What happens if you give two people the same number?

And, what if you could use a system that tells you something about the person in question?

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). think about your goals. Are you trying to prove you lineage to be a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution? If so, maybe all you're interested in is your direct line.

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.

Whichever approach you take, picking a starting point and an ending point will help you determine the scope of your genealogy project. If you're only interested in your direct line, back to the American Revolution, you're looking at a limited number of generations, so, a simple numbering system maybe be more than sufficient.

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 good news is, there are some numbering systems out there, already in use for centuries by genealogy researchers all over the world.

One of the most common systems is the "Sosa-Stradonitz System," which is also commonly known as the Ahnentafel system. In this systems, 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. This method is used worldwide. It was first used in 1676 by Spanish genealogist Jerome de Sosa, and then popularized by Stephan Kekule von Stradonitz who used it in his 1896 Ahnentafel Atlas.

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?

Other numbering systems such as the Register system, the Record system, the Henry and the d'Aboville systems all have similar strengths and weaknesses. In the end, I decided on letting my computer do the numbering for me. I use the unique identifiers my genealogy software creates.

Source files

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, 1) primary sources; (i.e. birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates and photographs), 2) secondary sources copies of pages from genealogy books, county record collections, city directories, etc.) and 3) 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 see documents without fear of getting anything on them, plus, you can easily catalog 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, hurricanes, or changing political climates which might prevent easy access to records.

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).

My documents are categorized by the unique identifier created by my database, as well as the type of document it is. A typical document would be identified as Birth Certificate 42. Do I remember people's unique identifiers? 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.

I have a different method for cataloging photos, albums and negatives. For those types of files, take a look at these tips.

Working files

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 in 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.

Digital Files

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. I make regular backups. You may think I'm overly paranoid. Possibly. But a fire claimed many of my family records, and hard drive failures are not uncommon. The more places your combined information is stored, the more safe it is.

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 then 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.

Of course, this also brings up the issue of specialized software. Do you need to buy specialized software programs such as Family Tree Maker?

Choosing Software

There are software packages for every budget (including a budget of $0). To chose a software package, there are things to consider.

First, what is the ultimate goal of your project?

For me, the goal was accessibility. I wanted to be able to create something that combined photos and genealogy in a format that anyone that had a computer could open and would be easy to use, even for my dad, who'd never touched a computer, and for whom the very thought was terrifying. Many of the genealogy software programs have these sorts of capabilities, but, to view them with the layout, the family member would also have to have the same software.

In addition, I don't want the only source of information to be tied to a database that is no longer in production, and my ancestors can't use any longer. Keeping a written backup of your electronic files is pretty important.

Forcing everyone to have the same software was a big barrier to me. I wanted people to be able to not have to think about it, but be able to put the CD in their computer, and use it with one click. This is still my primary concern.

When I create a new edition of the CDs of photos and family tree information, it has no evidence of how I store my files, what I name them, how it's organized, etc. The software I use, I use to help me sort everything, and keep it straight. But, my family doesn't ever see it. Further, they don't really even see the traditional pedigree charts or indexes, since, I think those reports are daunting and impersonal. What they see is much more like a photo album.

So, I generally use the cheapest tools I can find, since, ultimately, the information has two audiences. Sadly, part of this means that I'm entering the main data twice. (Names, dates, etc.)

There are many terrific genealogy programs out there. Some even come with census records so that you can further your research. The more stuff they do, generally, the more they cost. Some programs seem to do everything but the research for you. Decide what best fits your need. The key things you want from a database are listed below:

  • The ability to keep an unlimited number of records. Whether your project is large or small, a program that can keep pace with your needs is essential.
  • Able to import and export GEDCOM files. GEDCOM stands for GEnealogical Data COMmunication. This is the standard form used by most genealogy systems, and will allow you to send and receive data from a family member who uses different software from what you use. This can save a great deal of time. If you are sharing your data with a family member or other public database, this is the format they use, and you'll want a database that can handle these files.
  • Pay attention to the types of reports that your software can generate. Most can print a huge assortment of charts and lists and indexes. They're usually really pretty to look at, and can be quickly generated and printed for people without computer capabilities. Indexes that can be generated and printed easily are also helpful guides for you as you research.
  • Most databases can store source information. keep everything together. I mentioned earlier I use the record number generated by my database software as the numbering tool for documents. Sync that data! Your database can tell you where to find that document in your files.
  • Databases are about making it easy to access and search data quickly, but they're only as good as what's be entered. If it's not easy to quickly update your database, and keep it currently with your research, it maybe time to look for another option.

Master Log Files

I use log files for things my database can't really handle. Some of these started as a spreadsheet, but, 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.

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.

One of my logs that turned into a database was for pictures. I needed something I could more easily search. It tracks things such as negatives, double prints, pictures of people unknown, pictures of places, etc.

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 information.

There are many reasons for discrepancies. Sometimes you can determine the reason and explain the difference. My grandparents had two different wedding anniversaries, as they had to keep their marriage secret from the military. Discrepancies without explanations are lines of inquiry, and will you 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.

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