I have this huge pile of boxes with tens of thousands of documents in various locations around my house. So how do I cope with all that stuff. People who can't stand piles would go absolutely crazy if they had to live around my stuff. But despite the apparent disarray of all that, it really is a huge mess.
The key to taming the genealogy stuff has three stages: scanning (or digitizing which is the same thing) all of the documents and artifacts and then organizing the images with metadata and attaching them to appropriate individuals in your genealogical database program.
The first step is a brute force operation. It entails sitting down with a scanner or camera and feeding the photographs, documents or other items into the scanner or camera's view field and saving the resultant files to your hard drive or drives. In my case the flow of documents looks like this:
prepare original documents for scanning by removing staples, paper clips or other issues => original document => scanner => saved to tiff or camera RAW file => files put in temporary folder for processing => preparing the documents with some preliminary titles or identification using either Picasa or Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop => storing the documents on first external hard drive => backing the file up to two or more additional drives => returning to the files to extract pertinent files for attachment to individuals => moving files to common folder for all of the genealogy programs => using the common folder for attaching files to programs => keep returning to scanned images and mining them for more images => keep repeating the process until I run out of documents (which in my case is never)
I need to comment on a couple of the steps. My files are so large that I now need 4 TB hard drives to back them up properly. I cannot use the primary hard drive of my computer because the files are way too large. So, I use the computer's hard drive only as a temporary storage place until I have verified that the files are copies successfully and backed up. The key process here is attaching the files to individuals in my primary genealogical database program. That is a slow process but I am steadily adding images to my files.
As a side note, I am also using both Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com and their respective desktop programs, to move source documents from online to my files. No matter what you think of either of these online databases, they are fabulous tools for adding sources to the individuals in your family files, while at the same time avoiding paper copies of the documents you are gathering.
Another step that needs explaining is the file acquisition. At the present time, for a variety of reasons, I am following the current archival standards of the Library of Congress for saving my files. I use three methods for acquiring images depending on the technical issues and the types of documents. My basic tool is a Canon (or Epson or whatever) flatbed scanner. I usually scan at 400 dpi, slightly above the recommended 300 dpi used by the archives. I also use a sheetfed scanner, in my case the present one is an Epson, which works well for piles of documents. For some documents or photographs that are technically difficult, such as negatives, or oversize for the scanners, I use a high resolution (21.5 Megapixel) digital camera. In the case of the camera, the images are captured in camera RAW and then a TIFF copy is made for archive purposes. I keep both the RAW image and the TIFF file since the RAW image usually has to be "developed" in some way such as cropping or rotating.
You might notice that I do not specify the database program I am using. The reason is simple, I have several and I move between them as I decide that one or another is more useful at the moment. I am in the process of moving all my photos and all my sources to FamilySearch.org's Family Tree program as the place to "archive" the entire file. So I spend some time each week putting sources into Family Tree. I have nothing against using other online programs, but I just have confidence that my files will be better protected in the long run on FamilySearch.
Adding titles to the files and metadata or tags is very useful. I am way behind in doing this but I can use both Adobe Lightroom and Google's Picasa to add metadata and to edit the photos, change file names and put them in folders. I use the search function on my computer to also find a file. For example, my wife wanted a photo of one of her ancestors and had searched my computer without success. I found the file in about two minutes. It could have been better identified, but it did have the name of her ancestor and I used Picasa to find a copy of the photo that had been moved to a new hard drive.
So far the system is working very well. I have hired by grandsons the last two summers to scan images and transcribe documents. That has been an interesting experience. I plan to continue hiring my grandchildren to help every summer until they take me away to the care center or the mortuary.
This is not a casual or sometime I will do it project. It is a massive organization of a huge number of documents. But the same system works for much smaller collections, you will simply run out of documents to organize before you die.
The final question for today is what happens to the originals. I keep them in their files and boxes piled up under tables, in closets, in stacks in corners and in any extra space or give them, when appropriate, to universities special collections or other libraries. But even if my children, perish the thought, should decide to dump the whole pile, nearly all of the documents will be online, on other hard drives or otherwise in repositories and will be saved.
Oh, I almost forgot one important step. I make an extra backup copy on a hard drive from time to time and give a copy to one or more of my children to keep. You can see what happens to some of the files on TheAncestorFiles.blogspot.com. Of course, if you are even more organized than I am, you can modify the process any way that is convenient for you. More on organization later.