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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

More on organizational systems and genealogy

I one of my recent posts, I made a passing comment about colored file folders. I need to explain exactly what I meant by the comment and how all of the so-called organizational systems people try to get me to use don't appeal to me at all. Whether to do your genealogy on paper or on the computer, you eventually get to the point where you are drowning in names and files. Certainly, the casual genealogist never gets to this problem. But consistent research produces its own product and that product is paper or in the case of computer digitized files, files.

Unfortunately, and I mean that in the full sense of the word, our society acquires values that are not consistent with the practice of genealogy at all. For example, when was the last time you saw a real pile of genealogical documents in boxes and etc. on a TV commercial except as a bad example. The people on TV or in movies almost never have a real life of piles of boxes, closets of boxes, boxes piled in the family room, boxes in the garage, paper, clutter, piles of syllabuses, books on every flat surface, pencils in holders, notes pasted to every surface, hard drives, computers (in the plural), printers, etc. etc. and etc.  I practice the glacial system of organization, what ever falls into the pile will eventually surface at the terminal moraine on my desk. People like my generations' Don Aslett, are NOT genealogists.

First, don't confuse clean with piles of documents. If you go crazy with piles and boxes, you are not really emotionally suited to genealogy. Piles and such are not dirty but we have been made to think that they are somehow intrinsically bad just by their mere existence. This is not true.

I have lived my entire life in a paper intensive world. I have law cases over the years that took a large van just to carry the boxes of documents to court. One case required about twenty or so banker's boxes full of documents that had to be transported back and forth to court part way across the state of Arizona. Believe me, I know what it means to have to deal with paper piles. One day I cleaned off my desk and everyone in the office thought I was sick. Now, we have an extremely organized numbering system to maintain our files, with folders marked carefully and legal assistants working day and night to keep everything in order. We stamp each document as it comes in and now scan everything into the computer. Paper copies go into the files in chronological order and everything is kept together in large expandable files holding manila files. Guess what? We spend almost every day regularly looking for lost files. The system basically doesn't work. Even when we pay people to do it right. We still lose files for days at a time.

Is there solution? Yes. But it has nothing to do with the physical management of files. I has to do with the electronic management of information. Another example, I recently went to my regular doctor for an exam. Then I went to a specialist. The doctors both have hugely organized systems of color coded folders. What was the problem? Each doctor has his own system and they don't communicate. They had to physically fax a paper report from my primary physician to my specialist. Does your beautifully color coordinated file system with a folder for each family line and surname talk to each other? I know it does not.

The basic unit here is the file or paper document. The first step is to digitize, that is scan or photograph every document. You can spend a lot of time agonizing over whether or not the document is "worth keeping." I avoid this issue altogether and scan or digitize everything. I an not going to try to second guess whether any particular document or letter or whatever has historical significance since I have not idea what my descendants will think is important or interesting. Throwing away stuff because you aren't personally interested in it is why you can't find some of your ancestors. They did the same thing. Where do you draw the line? I draw the line at saved magazine articles and programs for commercial productions. I know they have historical value, but unless one of my relatives was in the production or mentioned in the newspaper, I am not in the business of preserving U.S. history on my own dime.

OK, so the file is now digitized? What do you do with it? Tune in for the next installment of this discussion.


  1. You sound like a man who understands paper in the broader sense of the word. I can hardly wait.

  2. James,
    You mentioned James Aslett's name above. I'm curious, do you know him? He was an elder at the church near me, and I met him several times, incl. his wife Barbara.

    Thanks, Barbara