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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The paper glacier descends on the happless genealogist

The movie, The Day After Tomorrow, depicts the sudden onslaught of an extreme ice age transforming the northern part of the United States into a huge frozen wasteland. Although North America is safe from such a disaster, I am personally facing my own glacial event in the form of growing piles of paper. Recently the paper glacier began growing in several new places in my home, forcing me to take refuge in the last remaining clear space. I am not quite to the point, shown in the movie, where I am burning books to keep warm, but I do eye the recycling container with more than passing interest.

As I survey my work area, I note that every flat surface is piled with books or paper and the box count keeps rising. I have piles of boxes everywhere there is a space for them that will not be in the way of traffic. No, I am not a hoarder. I do not intend to die, crushed to death by my piles of old newspapers. As I would say, my piles consist of good junk not junk junk.

During the last few posts, I have been writing about paper as it applies to genealogists. This whole topic was started by a four-way discussion I had with two other genealogists and a new-comer to the field. We each had our own take on how to handle the masses of paper that have accumulated over the years. I must admit, I have always been envious of those tidy people who have marvelous filing systems with every document categorized and filed, available in an instant. I think I admire them for the same reason I admire Japanese homes, they are almost completely empty, evidencing a simple lifestyle.

I do find it impossible to relate to either compulsive filers or the Japanese, for one simple reason, neither of them are dealing with a glacially covered mountain of paper. I treat my glacier like a glacier, the older paper tends to move to the bottom of the piles and I can date the past by looking at the layers of paper that have accumulated. In an ideal world, I would have all of the piles and boxes categorized and separated by individual families. I do not live in an ideal world. I would characterize my paper management "system" (although there are many who debate that a system exists) as accommodating. I just live with it. Here are some principles I have found useful:
  1. Don't Worry Be Happy, as Bobby McFerrin sang. If you fret about the piles, you will only end up fretting. Unless you end up with a monumental amount of free time, nothing is likely to change.
  2. Make peace with the paper. Don't look at the piles as enemies but as friends. They are evidence of the huge amount of work that you have either done or are going to do.
  3. Put as much into the computer as is humanly possible. Digitize everything. Add metadata to your images so you can find whatever you are looking for. Attach digitized copies of your documents to the individuals in your genealogical database.
  4. Realize that you are not going to throw out all those historical documents and live with the realization.
Here is the point, there is unlikely to be any paper filing system, absent the space and resources of a document repository with a paid staff, that will adequately take care of a glacier's worth of documents. Fortunately, we can simply and easily digitize everything and let the computer do the organization. Realize that scanning a document and then failing to add metadata, proper file names and whatever, is just like moving a document from one pile to another. Don't think you will "get through" with organizing your files. There is no end, so live with it. As we used to say, life is hard and then you die. But the fortunate thing is that you can pass on a legacy if you choose to do so.

Take advantage of free online services such as to "store" your research and document images. There are hundreds of online options, but you need to be realistic about sinking your time into a subscription site. Will you heirs pay to keep the site open? Think about it. Use a non-profit foundation instead of for-profit company and you will have a better chance at saving your work. Hopefully, someday, will get its act together and we can use what ever the descendant of turns out to be for the same purpose, preserving priceless research.


  1. For a person so sensibly fond of libraries and other manuscript repositories as thou, James, it was somewhat disappointing to read "Here is the point, there is unlikely to be any paper filing system, absent the space and resources of a document repository with a paid staff, that will adequately take care of a glacier's worth of documents." Yes, and it takes the work of the individual familiar with its contents to begin the organization, doesn't it!

    Conservation-grade document storage / organization systems do exist. Inexpensive, lightweight, collapsible shelving systems exist to hold them (so helpful to use once document organization begins).

    It is so easy to think that electronic venues offer long-term solutions. But last Spring's electrical debacle that destroyed part of a notable Cloud operation in VA, and the ice storm that knocked out power in a large section of the US electrical grid several years ago -- resulting in destruction of many computer systems both due to the outage and during startup -- should make us think twice about long-term feasibility.

    When should any one of us begin to organize the Paper Glacier? Immediately. Do it a little at a time. Even a half-hour in each of 4 days per week can begin making a dent in the mass. Your post has prompted me renew my own vow to begin -- this week!

  2. James,

    My approach: digitize all documents and photographs. Throw away any documents and photographs that are not "original". Give all the original documents and photographs away to other researchers in exchange for their information or services. I then use to print hard bound (8.5X11) books of all the documents and photos. This way the only hard copies I have are bound books. Obviously, there are some photos I keep for myself.