Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, August 7, 2015

A Fresh Look at Organizing Genealogy Files -- Part One

There are a number of books and dozens of articles on organizing genealogy or family history files. Most, if not almost all, of the written works about genealogical organization have a unique program, file system or other organizational gimmick to offer to their readers. Here are a few of the offerings:

Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. Organizing Your Family History Search: Efficient & Effective Ways to Gather and Protect Your Genealogical Research. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 1999.

Family tree magazine, and F+W Media. Organize Your Genealogy Life! Solutions for Every Family Historian. [United States?]: F+W Media, 2009.

Fleming, Ann. The Organized Family Historian: How to File, Manage, and Protect Your Genealogical Research and Heirlooms. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 2004.

Hill, Mary E. Vassel. FamilyRoots Organizer How to Organize Your Family History Research. Hurricane, UT: The Studio, 2007.
Langman, Robert R., and Jimmy B. Parker. 30 Seconds: A Guide to Organizing Your Genealogy Files. 1st edition. Midvale, Utah: Heritage Knights, LLC, 2001. 

Levenick, Denise May. How to Organize Family History Paperwork a Genealogist’s Guide to Effective Record Keeping. Cincinnati: F+W Media, 2012.

May-Levenick, Denise S. How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally, 2015.{FB65F0EE-AC97-4BAD-AB7A-1920317AE539}&Format=410.

Smallwood, Carol, Elaine Williams, and Scarecrow Press. Preserving Local Writers, Genealogy, Photographs, Newspapers, and Related Materials, 2012.

Taylor, Maureen Alice. Preserving Your Family Photographs: How to Organize, Present, and Restore Your Precious Family Images. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2001.

I am sure there are many, many more.

 We have a virtually universal tool with the Internet and powerful, personal computers. My basic rule is to let the computer do what it does best and let me do what I can do that the computer cannot do. As an example, look at the list of books above. I found those books in the catalog. I used a program called to add the books to a list. organizes the list in alphanumeric order and formats each entry according to the Chicago Manual of Style. After I clicked on a link to add them to a list in, I created the list in my post by highlighting the formatted list and dragging it to my blog post. I can alphabetize. I can also format bibliographic entries. But why do either when I have a program that will do both?

This is not the first time I have tackled this issue. See the following previous posts:
Now, I do not want to re-invent the wheel, but I do see a need to dispel some of the misconceptions about organizing your genealogy that are essentially a holdover from a bygone era. I would have liked to start from scratch with some ideas about organizing but you can see from my own list that I have already hashed this over quite a few times. I have been thinking yet again on this subject and decided that I would finally synthesize all of my thoughts into one series. Who knows, it might even end up in a book.

I will start with a hypothetical genealogy project. Let's suppose that I am completely new to genealogy and in searching through some of my documents, I run across my own birth certificate.

As I continue to look through the documents, I discover several other certificates and I begin to wonder about my family. Now, let's fast forward a year or two. I have now spent some time exploring the history of my family. I have accumulated a file folder of documents and other records and I am starting to get serious about investigating my family. Searching online, I find that there are many websites that will help you find your family's records. More time passes. I have purchased a subscription to and I have quite a few ancestors in my family tree. I have also started accumulating more documents and photographs. They now fill a box. has found a number of documents for the members of my family, including some newspaper articles I did not know existed.

In a nutshell, this is a simple model of how most genealogists get started. Some of us have been at this business for many years. Others have only begun their journey into the past. But one thing we all have in common is a pile of paper. Our pile may be a few documents or an entire room full of boxes, but we all face the same basic challenge: what do we do with the photos, documents, certificates, letters, journals, books, and other memorabilia that accumulates over the years of our involvement with genealogy?

Some people are natural organizers. I have often referred to these people in my own experience, as the ones who have perfectly organized notebooks in school, with page protectors and carefully written notes, with tabs and color coding. But there comes a point when paper organization systems break down without a significant effort and investment of time.

Fortunately, we have a way out of the paper jungle. We also do not have to re-invent the wheel (or the organizational system). We have some perfect models of how large numbers of documents are and can be organized.

Every document has an owner
The basic concept is that every document (including photos, etc) has an owner, that is, every document refers to one or more people in our collection of relatives. I hesitate to use the word ancestry, because much of my own genealogy deals with relatives who are not in my direct line. The hypothetical birth certificate I referred to above, could contain references to me, to my parents and perhaps to other members of my family. Without going into the issue of primary vs. secondary and other evaluative concerns, I need to preserve this document in some way and make it accessible. Ultimately, organization includes some or all of the following considerations concerning all of the documents in my possession:
  • Preservation
  • Conservation
  • Organization
  • Location and Retrieval 
  • Evaluation
  • Incorporation
  • Digitization
At this point I need to introduce the issue of digitization, that is, the process of moving a paper document into electronic format. In my own history, I began accumulating genealogically significant documents, long before there were readily usable personal computers and scanners. My present pile of documents, including photographs, includes tens of thousands of individual pieces of paper (or whatever). Most of that accumulation has been scanned or photographed is now sitting on several very large hard drives. I am abundantly familiar with the challenges of organization.

Most organization methods start with putting the hypothetical document into some kind of container, usually a file folder or binder. I am abundantly familiar with files. Over almost 40 years of law practice, I accumulated thousands of them. One fairly common occurrence, as I was winding down my practice, was to find a document, or series of documents that had been mis-filed over the years. Sometimes whole files had been either mis-labeled or confused with other series of files. This brings me to the next step.

Every document needs to be associated with its owner
If every document has an "owner" then it follows that every document (in the most general sense) should be somehow associated with its owner. Files, binders, boxes etc. are inefficient ways to associate files with their owner or owners. This is especially true if a document contains references to several, differently related, owners. Let me give an example.

A Mexican Catholic Parish Register record of a birth may contain the following elements:
  • Date and place of baptism or christening
  • Name of child
  • Gender of child
  • Birth date of child
  • Parents names
  • Residences of the parents
  • Witnesses or godparents' names
The information contained on this one record needs to be associated with five or more people. The problem with a traditional paper file folder based organizational system is that these separate relationships are either ignored or blurred by the system. For example. some paper file systems organize families by surname. In the above record, there are two or more families represented with two or more surnames; the child's surname, the father's surname, the mother's surname, and the surnames of the witnesses or godparents. If all these relationships have to be represented in a file organization system, the organizer may end up making several copies of the original record. Hmm, that seems like a real problem to me. That brings up the next issue.

Every document may have multiple owners
This gets to the crux of the issue of genealogical organization. Now we have to think about how we are going to solve the multiple ownership issue. I am at the point where I need to take some steps back and come at this issue again. Time to move to the next installment. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. James,

    I really hope you're going the "source-based" direction. Waiting for Part Two.