As astute readers may have noticed, almost all genealogical topics fall into one of two categories: methodology or resources. Since both are critical for creating accurate family histories, I try to be even handed between the two, but like most genealogists, I tend toward the resources category (as the last two columns demonstrate) — show me the records! To balance that bias, let’s talk organization in this column.
It won’t take long after you start digging up your roots, to find that you start amassing quite a bit of information. When you send away for vital records, take notes from interviewing relatives, acquire ships manifests, census information, obituaries, newspaper articles — all of this material needs to go somewhere, and easily findable. At all costs, avoid the Pile Methodology — don’t leave paper in piles. Those piles are genetically bred to mingle, so instead, use folders.
Many family historians have a folder for each branch of the family, or further subdivide into folders for particular couples and their children. Others use one folder for all vital records, another for census info, etc. Still others use 3-ring notebooks with plastic sleeves — which is probably the best method, both organizationally and for preserving records.
(A great clearinghouse of preservation resources can be found at Cyndi’s List: www.cyndislist.com/preservation.htm.)
Try a method that works the way your brain works, and if it doesn’t quite work, experiment with a different method.
Don’t wait until the piles appear before you start this method. Get in the habit now by labeling folders so you have a welcoming destination for all those scraps of paper.
Electronically, the same methodology works. Increasingly, more information is online, or coming online that you’ll want to download, including original sources such as birth certificates, ship manifests, city directories, naturalization petitions, etc.
Just create folders and subfolders on your desktop, and download documents directly to the folders. For instance, I have folders labeled family photos, video, documents, articles, etc., and within some of them, I have folders for each branch of my family.
This method will also hopefully encourage you to start scanning material to put into those folders. It would be a true tragedy if something were to happen to those priceless family photos and documents, so now it the time to either scan them in yourself, or hire someone else do it for you. Not only do you create an exact copy of those documents/photos that can be easily shared, but they will be better preserved since you don’t have to handle them — they can be locked away in a cool, dark place.
And make sure to create back ups, either on another hard drive, or burning the info on CDs.
In the old days (before computers), people used forms to organize all their facts, to see the big picture, or focus on an individual. They also created hand drawn family trees, or bought charts and filled them in by hand (some still do). Now, anyone who is slightly serious about genealogy, uses software specifically designed to organize literally hundreds of thousands of pieces of information. I’ll talk about that next time.