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

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A testimony against procrastination in genealogy

Over the past almost thirty years, I have accumulated tens of thousands of documents and tens of thousands of photographs. Most of the photos are of the family variety and date from the present to back into the mid-1800s. The documents consist of everything imaginable, deeds, certificates, probate documents, journals, books, life histories, cards, and letters and almost everything else from movie programs to shopping lists. While accumulating this huge pile of stuff, I must admit that I procrastinated identifying and naming all of the people in all of the photos or even categorizing the documents.

It might help to understand that I didn't really plan on getting all those documents. Most of them just showed up at my door with little or no supporting data. The stories of how the documents came to me are varied and fascinating. Maybe I will tell some of the stories some time. However, since the technology has been available, I have been scanning the documents and photos into digital files. I am probably less than half done with the scanning after more than twenty years. I admit, I go in spurts, I will scan two or three thousand documents in the course of a week or two of intense scanning and then will spend the rest of time sorting and cataloging the files. At least that is what I do now.  Before, I would simply scan the documents and move on to the next pile of scanning.

For that reason, I ended up with this enormous pile of unidentified and unsorted scanned images. I implore you, do not follow my example. It is immensely more efficient to identify the documents at the time they are being scanned, or shortly thereafter. I realize that there are not many people outside of libraries and other repositories, faced with the quantity of documents and photos I have to contend with. But even on a smaller scale, looking at a pile of unidentified photos or documents can be intimidating and can lead to the "throw it out rather than sort it" syndrome. Lately, I have focused on sorting and naming to the extent that I am eliminating almost every other activity. I intend to get through the piles before I die! I am actually surprised that I am still writing this blog.

OK, let's get real. Genealogy is paper (or digital file) intensive. It pays to have some system to identify and find all of the documents. I have read and studied at least a dozen different sure-fire methods of organizing files including color coding, surname sorting, and every other possible system. In the end I have come to several general rules that I follow to make some sense of the huge accumulation.

Rule #1: Let the computer do what the computer does best, sort stuff.

I have review plenty of suggestions on how to organize all of the various documents. Almost all of them require me to do most of the actual sorting work. I have to decide where to physically put the document or photo and that takes time, a lot of time. I have opted to allow the computer to do the sorting. I name and tag the documents and let the find file functions locate my document or photo. It doesn't really matter which file folder I put it in, I can always to a search and find the document or photo. It helps to use a Macintosh computer, because the operating system comes with a very efficient search program.

Rule @2: Use meta-data.

Meta-data is information that the computer system or a program attaches to a file such as a document or photo. I use a program from Adobe called Bridge. Bridge lets me sort files and add meta-data. There are definite limitations to the length of file names and what can be included. Meta-data will allow a much more detailed and extensive description, such as naming all of the people in a large group photo. In most instances, except when viewed in a program like Bridge, the data is invisibly recorded with the original file. But, the meta-data can be searched. So you can find Uncle Fred in the middle of his high school class photo.

Rule #3: Don't throw away the originals.

Sometimes the scanned images turn out fuzzy or unreadable. They may also be lost before they are properly backed-up. In any event, don't throw away those original documents. It may take a lot of work, but you might want to start now to find a repository willing to take the documents and preserve them. Obviously, no library wants a bunch of photocopies. But real original documents may have some intrinsic historical value that would be attractive to some university or library. But don't just dump the documents on your heirs and expect them to either appreciate what they have or do anything about it. If you want your papers preserved, make sure you arrange for the preservation long before you enter the rest home.

Rule #4: Name the files when they are still freshly obtained.

Of course, I broke my own rule. I waited until the pile was huge before getting into the naming business. But it is so much easier to give the files meaningful names when they are still fresh. As time goes on, you will probably lose your notes and memory and be unable to identify the people, the places or the documents. Keep it up, do the job when it can still be done.

Rule #5: Use names and meta-tags that have some meaning.

You can only stand to look at so many files with the name "Tanner Family." I use some kind of name when the document is originally scanned or downloaded to the computer to begin to identify the subject matter, such as "Tanner Picnic in Cottonwood Canyon." I also use a date tag on every file name, like this:

2010-10-10 Tanner Picnic in Cottonwood Canyon

Now, the date is mostly the date the picture was taken or the document was scanned. I leave the exact date of the event or document for the meta-data. I use the dated file names to make sure I have scanned an entire set of documents and also to make sure backup copies are made on various disks. For example, the 2010-10-10 files will be differentiated from the 2010-10-11 files I do tomorrow. Don't be afraid to use something besides the file name "Tanner00065" that shows up when a file is downloaded from a camera.

When faced with a lot of data, it is also helpful to use very specific sources for your entries in a lineage linked database program. Having the documents and not putting sources into your genealogy program is almost worse than not having the documents at all.

I am probably not through with this subject.


  1. Wow you have some sorting to do, good luck with that, i cant imagine having to scan so much stuff.

    As soon as my images come in (i probably recieve 99% of my stuff via email so they are all considered images and what i get in the post is scanned pretty much straight away) i put them into the persons folder. You see everyone has their own folder with a copy of the photo,marriage docs, birth etc, etc. Thats my system of organizing. So for photo's etc with more than one person relavent i simply make multiple copies and add to each folder, pretty easy.

    From here if i have problems with my tree i can easily goto that persons folder and compare.

    Also, since most of my genealogy is on email (i do heaps of correspondance with people this way) it is easily searchable.

  2. Organizing, sorting and scanning the mountain of documentation, photos, etc IS a huge ongoing task for genealogists.
    My career background is in medical research and I've been considering trying one of the software programs we use in science to organize references, papers, photos, pdf files etc. There are two programs - reference manager and endnote. Reference manager assigns a number and one files by number. Endnote creates libraries based on projects. Perhaps this could correspond to surnames. I'm leaning towards reference manager as it is linear - as items come in they are indexed and filed regardless of which "project" (or surname) the data is under.

    It would be interesting to find out how archivists organize their data.

    Good article, thanks!

  3. Wow! That is a lot of scanning! I had to devise a system myself after compiling all sorts of things. Here is my blog post about how I organize my digital genealogy files:

    Thanks for the tid-bits on the meta-data, that could be helpful!