A couple of years ago, I did a couple of popular webinars for the Brigham Young University Family History Library called "Organizing Genealogy Files" and "What's in that Pile? Organization for the Disorganized Genealogist." Since that time, I have had a number of questions about organizing personal genealogy files. So, I thought I would be a good idea to revisit the topic.
I can summarize organization in a number of steps as follows:
- Choose one main family history database program to use as your primary organizational tool. This can be an online program such as the FamilySearch.org Family Tree or Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com or some other program or it can be a desktop program such as Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, or Ancestral Quest. Use this primary program to enter all of your information about your family.
- Digitize all of your documents, photos, slides, everything. You can buy an inexpensive, very usable flatbed scanner for less than $300. As you scan your documents, attach the scanned images as sources to all the individuals in your primary database program.
- Organize your paper records by creating an accession system. You number the first document #1, the second document #2 and etc. Then the computerized database has a list of all the documents with a short title/description. This description could also be the formal citation to the document if you want to have that information available. The documents are then filed using either file folders or boxes. You can then easily find a document by its number and by searching the database.
- Keep your research logs, notes, and timelines etc. online in a general purpose program such as Google Docs or another easily accessible program. You can also keep a copy of your database list of documents online in Google Drive or some other accessible program and have it available when you add new documents or need to find or refer to a document.
- You can use a dedicated photo program such as Adobe Lightroom to organize the photos or you can just keep all of them in one huge folder and keep the record numbers and or dates as part of the title of photo/file.
If you have a digital copy of the document or photo attached to your primary family history or genealogy database program, you will find that you do not need to refer to your overall list very often, if at all.
If you think of this as an overwhelming task, then it will be an overwhelming task. But if you just start numbering or attaching and digitizing, you will soon see the results in being able to find most of the information you are really interested in finding.
Please, please, always preserve the original documents. You can find a lot of information about document preservation from the Library of Congress Preservation Directorate. By the way, this system is essentially exactly the one used by many Archives. Sometimes their classifications and physical storage are more complicated, but essentially, they number the items and put them in storage boxes or on shelves and create a catalog of the documents showing location and ID number.
If you like, you can color code, cross-reference, add comments or make scrapbooks or whatever, but none of that really adds anything to the storage method described.