Yesterday, I spent some time helping a friend with some research issues. The experience reminded me of one of my most insecure issues in my early schooling: the notebook issue. It was inevitable that someone in one of my school classes would have this fabulous notebook, with everything arranged perfectly in tabs, with separators, while my notebooks were usually a messy pile of papers. I always started out with good intentions, but everything I did, for all my classes, seemed to turn into piles of paper. Yesterday was no exception. My friend had a perfectly organized notebook with copies of all the documents in page protectors and carefully written and very neat notes.
There was just one problem with all this neatness; she couldn't find anything. Every time we talked about an ancestor, she had to page through her huge notebooks and try and figure out what she had done and what information she had. This got me thinking about organization again. I have my sources and my documents digitized and attached to the individual ancestors. It takes me just seconds to go to any ancestor and find all the documents I have attached. I finally realized that page protectors and notebooks do not necessarily make a very organized way of handling a lot of genealogical information.
Regularly, someone asks me about organization. This is a hot topic for conferences and classes. Everybody thinks there is some unique or special way to organize a huge number of documents. Some use color coding, special file folders, numbering schemes and a multitude of other guaranteed ways to make finding everything a lot easier. Without knowing it or realizing what they are doing most of the time, the organizers are just following in the footsteps of 1000s of years of librarians. Librarians and archivists have been organizing huge piles of everything from clay tiles to rolls of parchment since man could read and write. So, why re-invent the wheel? Why not simply study what libraries and archives do and copy them? Better yet, why not use the most modern methods of organizing huge amounts of information?
That is exactly what I do. But on a much smaller scale. The good news is, I have a system. The bad news is that the system takes more time than I have spent so far. I am still in the middle of the system. For the past few years, I have been in the digitize everything stage. I have now begun to organize the digitized documents so that they are attached to each person mentioned in the document. That is the time consuming task. I have made good progress the last two years with my grandsons helping, mostly with digitizing and some other tasks. In a recent post, I outlined the digitizing procedures. In this post, I will assume the piles have been digitized and discuss the way the individual documents get organized so they can be found and used as necessary. To accomplish this, I do not need anyone's fancy organization plan. I have an extremely adequate one already. The way to organize is simple: use the tools you already have. In the case of all these genealogically important documents, the tool is the genealogy database program. Since some of the early Personal Ancestral File program versions, there has been a rather simple way to organize a huge pile of documents, photos and other media. That is attaching the separate items as sources to an individual's events using the program itself.
I still have a considerable number of documents to digitize, but the pile left is a lot less than it was even a year ago. It has taken a lot of time and some money, but now I am now on the downhill side of the digitizing pile. Furthermore, I am well into the organizational stage of attaching documents to my individual ancestors. There are two ways to do this: either have an actual digitized copy of the document in a file on my computer or find a copy of the document online and use a link to the document as a way to see the actual copy. I could also store copies of my documents online and use a link, but one of the important steps is allowing access to the documents to anyone in my extended family. This can best be accomplished by using a way that they can see the documents without having to pay for a subscription to some program or another. For example, if I find a document on Ancestry.com and link to the document on Ancestry.com, then the user must have a subscription to Ancestry.com to see the document. If the copy of the document is on my computer however, I must provide a copy of the document with the database file I share with any family member.
Most of the genealogical database programs today do not incorporate a copy of the document into their data files, instead they rely on a link to the documents on your computer. It seems that even the people with beautiful page protected notebooks either allow the documents to default into the storage location on their hard drive chosen by the program or end up with the documents in various folders all over their computer. Subsequently, they have a lot of broken links to documents. Some of the programs will go out and search for the documents, but if the documents have been moved to another external hard drive, they may not be found. To solve this problem, I simply keep all the documents I attach in one huge folder. That way all the documents can be moved at one time. Yes, I am back to the pile system, Everything goes into the pile. But now, with a computer, I can find any one document in seconds. Even if the documents become detached for some reason, it is a simple matter to find them in the huge common file. Also, if I use multiple programs, which I do, all of the files for all of the programs are in one folder.
Having all the documents in one file folder, including photos, makes for a huge file. In my case, the current working file is over 21 GB with 9,440 items. These are the documents being attached to the programs. The pool of documents waiting to be attached is huge; right now it is over 683 GB with 67,258, plus another 243 plus GBs of 24,748 items and a third file of over 25 GBs with 4,526 items. You can see, I have a long hard climb to get out of this pile. The three or four different files are separated by a division between my family and my wife's family and also by whether or not a low level sorting has occurred. Oh, I almost forgot, I have the Overson Glass Negatives file that has 6,153 items in over 152 GBs.
Now, obviously, this system may not work for everyone. There are certainly people who would go crazy trying to manage all this information. Maybe I have, but maybe, just maybe I haven't. So far, the system works a lot better than page protectors.