Genealogy 101: How to Organize Your Genealogy Research

messydeskDeciding how to organize your genealogy research is one of the biggest challenges many genealogists face. One system may work for some genealogists, but not for others. Finding a system that works for you may take trial and error. Let’s explore a few ways to organize your genealogy research.

Paper-Based Systems
Since genealogy research generates so many documents, some genealogists are more comfortable with paper-based methods of organization. Depending upon the size of your files, you may need a few file folders or you may require several three-ring binders.

One way to organize documents pertaining to a certain family (parents and children) is to have a Family Group Sheet for each family unit. Keep the family group sheet in the front of the folder, or it can be stapled to the inside front cover of the folder. If using a binder, the family group sheet can be kept in the inside front pocket, or it can be the first page in the binder. Any documents (birth, marriage, death certificates; wills; deeds; etc.) can be kept in the folder or the binder for that family unit.

Some people prefer to keep a large three-ring binder for each surname. In many cases, you would need more than one binder. You can decide whether to keep supporting documents with the family unit or whether the supporting documents should be kept together. There could be one binder for all vital records of the surname, one binder for all probate records, one binder for all deeds, etc.

You may decide at some point to number the supporting documents and create an index of the documents. Or you can cross-reference the document numbers to correlate with notes on the family group sheet or in a narrative of the family.

A research log for each family should also be kept in the file folder or binder. Keeping a research log will prevent you from duplicating your search efforts.

Your family file should include records for the children up to the time of their marriage. Once married, the child and their spouse should receive their own family folder or binder.

An important point to remember is to document as you go. Your research log should be filled in at the time you look at the source or record. Information found during that search should be entered onto the family group sheet. Sources should be cited at that time so information is accurate. Always complete the paperwork and file the documents before beginning another phase of the research.

Computer-Based Systems
A. Genealogy Programs
Many genealogy programs allow you to enter information into a research log and a family group sheet. Different “folders” can be maintained for individual surnames. It is more convenient to keep all individuals with the same surname together in a genealogy program. Source citations are now a feature of almost all genealogy programs. Be sure to enter the source citation for each new piece of information you find on a family member.

Supporting documents can be scanned so a digital copy can be maintained with the family file on your computer. Family group sheets are usually available in genealogy software programs.

B. Digital Genealogy Files
There are many genealogists who do not use genealogy software programs to document their research. Programs such as Word can be used for documenting information about family members. Spreadsheets, such as Excel, are often useful for analyzing and correlating information.

One way to organize genealogy files on your computer is to have a file folder for each surname. Subfolders can be created for each family under that surname. Files can be organized by using the same file naming convention for all of your digital files. A census record could be named “Smith, John 1850 census.” The marriage record for John Smith and Anne Brown could be named “Smith, John-Anne Brown 1852 marriage.” Land records could be named “Smith, John deed [deed book-page number].” If John Smith lived in several different locations, you may want to include the county and state in the file name.

If the subfolder for a certain family becomes too large to find a document quickly, another level of subfolders can be added for “Vital Records,” “Land Records,” “Probate Records,” and the like.

By adopting the same file-naming convention for all your digital files, you should be able to find documents quickly.

The best way to begin organizing your genealogy information is to start at the beginning of any research project. If you have piles and piles of files, set aside some time to tame those files and get the information into a genealogy software program, a paper file or binder, or into digital format on your computer.

You may start out organizing your information only to find that system just isn’t working for you. It’s okay to switch to a system that does work for you.

Now that you have some tips on how to organize your genealogy research, what’s keeping you from getting organized?