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

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dealing with the piles and boxes, genealogy in quantity

I can relate to the piles and piles of paper generated by years of genealogical research. I estimate that I have about 20 bankers' boxes of paper and photographs in my working files and another 30 or so in file cabinets and storage. I have been scanning for years and the current document count, including photographs, is 89,608 items comprising 640.4 GB of information and I am only about 1/2 or less done with scanning the paper documents. Not all of this is directly related to genealogy, but almost none of it includes the hundreds of thousands of documents I created as a trial attorney. Some of the documents do deal with business matters however.

I seem to acquire documents by the thousands, rather than one or two at a time. I was just at a family reunion and spent about three hours scanning and photographing documents as fast I could. I got about 3.5 GB of scans done and have yet to look at all the photos.

The real issue is whether or not I will be able to organize all of this stuff during my lifetime. That is not an exaggeration, it is a real concern. I find I am limited to working about 14 hours a day and even at that rate, I may not get even a small amount of my genealogy "finished" what ever that means?

Now, what is the best strategy for handling this huge amount of information? I have several suggestions based on my own huge pile:

1. Don't stress out looking at the piles. You can only do what you can do, so don't get sick over what can't be done. You will just end up spending energy on worry and not on working.

2. Decide if you are actually going to dedicate the rest of your life to genealogy. No, I am serious. Are you ready to do genealogy, not just as a pastime, but as a major full time occupation? If you have a huge pile of documents, journals, photos and whatever and have no interest in doing genealogy, then advertise in your family and find the obsessive genealogist who has a higher level of pain tolerance. Give him or her all the boxes and go do whatever it is that you think is more important than genealogy. (Do you detect the hint of disdain in the writing?) Really, there are some of us who would think we had died and gone to heaven if we got a bunch of documents to work on.

3. Be systematic. Don't think in terms of huge piles, think more of small projects strung together. Think, I am going to scan this series of scrapbooks and then I will move this box into the closet. Once that is done, I will work on this small box of old photographs. Once you have completed one job, put it out of your mind for a while. Try and work the jobs in between doing research and analysis. Help someone else with their genealogy, then come back and work on the piles again. When I used to cut the Bermuda grass around our house in Phoenix when I growing up, I believed that the grass was growing so fast that by the time I finished the yard, it needed to be done again. Genealogy is like that, you think you might be getting done with some small part and then discover another box your thought you had already looked at. Just keep picking away at it and you will soon have a huge number of documents to name and add metadata to.

4. Have someplace to work that gives you a view to the outside. I have to watch the sun cross the sky every day, even if I never get to go outside and see it in real life. I went outside once and I don't see that it did me any good, so I came back in to work. Look, think about it. As I write this post it is 112 degrees outside. Why would I want to go outside anyway?

5. Think about the money value of your time. Spend some time looking into faster scanners and faster computers. When possible use a digital camera to record documents that you need only for the content.

6. I read a statement in an ad for an alternative computer that said something like computers were supposed to make our lives simpler. What??? Where did that come from?  I have never thought that computers made anything simpler, faster, more accurate, more information, more productive, a lot of things but none of them equate to simpler. The only way to make a computer simple is to turn it into a toy. iPhones and iPads may be very attractive devices but they are anything but simple to use. But here is the point, use and treat the computer as a tool and learn to use it well. The more you know about your computer, the more time you will spend doing work and less time hassling with the computer.

7. Finally, use the computer to organize and store information. That is what it was designed to do. Don't spend needless time trying to organize the documents before you scan them. Use the computer to organize and find the documents.

I realize that this post may not come across as very serious, but I am very serious about dealing with huge piles of documents. When you get down to it, it is a lot of work. Fast machines can help, but you still have to put in the time to organize and add the metadata to your files.

Good Luck.


  1. Hilarious.

    I found this particularly thought-provoking: "Decide if you are actually going to dedicate the rest of your life to genealogy."

    Actually, I've already thought about it and decided. When my cousin photocopies the contents of her 10x20 foot climate-controlled storage locker and mails it to me ... I quit.

  2. For me it's all about goals and priorities, because genealogy will never be "done." I can only focus on one or two goals at the time: right now it's to pursue a missing Maness ancestor (and organize the data for his line because that will help) and finish my book about my English family line. Last year my goal was to scan negatives to make a photo book for my uncle's 80th birthday, which I accomplished! I tend to finish when there's a deadline, like a birthday or reunion.

  3. The first half of your life you accumulate stuff; the second half you get rid of it. I am trying to organize my genealogy but like you said it can't be finish in my lifetime:)