When I started researching my family history, I threw everything together in a box and hoped for the best. Photos, documents, books, it didn’t matter. Everything went into “The Box”. I worked on my family history in spurts, so it seemed like no big deal that it was all piled together. Genealogy organization was not even in my vocabulary.
Sometimes for 6 months to a year, I would dive in and put my whole heart into it, then pack it away for a few months until the notion would strike and I would dive back in. When I got married, the box was easy enough to just throw in the car and deliver to our new house. Easy to transport, right?
The problem was that I kept collecting things and adding them to the box. Soon, one box became 4 plus a half dozen binders. When I was ready to work on my family research, everything came out of the boxes and was spread all over my workspace. In my head I always seemed to know what I had, but I could never find anything I looked for.
Those early days taught me a lot, but I think the most important lesson I learned is that organization is key. So now I’m going to share with you these tips for organizing your research in hopes to help you avoid the chaos of “The Box”.
How to Organize Genealogy Documents
I’m starting with genealogy documents because honestly, I think that’s how all our family history research starts. You find a paper from an ancestor that interests you and suddenly you want to know more. You jump online or go to a library and that one paper turns into 20 and you need to organize them somehow.
The easiest way I have found to organize documents is in files folders. I organize my files folders like you would a family tree. Each branch I am researching gets a file box and each family or married couple in that branch gets a file folder. The children of these couples go in their parents file folder until they get married, then they get their own file folder.
Organizing Genealogy Files -Ideas
There are many ways you can organize your family research files, but one of the ways that work best for me is to color code your files by branch.
If your file box for the “Jones” family branch is blue, put a blue label on any files in that box, or use blue files. When it is time to return the file to its place, this makes it easier to see which file box it belongs in. Blue folder goes into the blue box.
Tip – Write the file name on a sheet of paper and place it as a “book mark” in the spot where you removed the file folder. When returning the file, you only have to look for the paper place holder to know where the file goes instead of searching for the name of the relative the folder belongs with.
Organizing Genealogy Binders
I have mixed feelings about using binders to organize my family research. I love that they are portable, making them easy to take to reunions or family gatherings, but because they are portable, it seems impossible to keep everything in them.
If you are going to keep binders to store your family research, organizing them like you would file boxes seems to work best. A binder for each branch with dividers for couples.
I have a few binders that I use like a summary of a family branch. In it, I keep a copy of a family tree for that branch, a copy of family group sheets, and if I have them, copies of photos or important documents. Notice I said copies. I try not to put originals documents in my binders especially if the binders will be handled often.
I have learned from experience that not only do heavily handled documents deteriorate faster, but if you have a picture of “Great-Grandma Jo” and someone wants it badly enough, it will mysteriously disappear. It’s best to keep the originals safely stored at home.
How to Organize and Store Old Photos
I have boxes and boxes of photos from my family history research. Some organized, some still tossed together waiting for me to put them in their place. I have learned over time that there are many ways to organize your old family photos but the important thing here is to organize them in a way the works for you. If you try organizing them one way and it doesn’t work, try another system until one works for you.
There are numerous products on the market for photo storage. You can pick up acid free storage boxes or albums in just about any big box store or order them online. Your photos are going to deteriorate and yellow no matter what you do to them, but the plan here is to slow it down and not give them a reason to deteriorate faster.
Now comes the hard part. How to organize your photos so you can still find them when you need them.
You can organize your photos by family branch, surname, alphabetically, or by number. Whichever works for you.
I personally like organizing by family branch. You can assign a photo box to your file box of that same family branch and organize it the same way. What you will end up with is a file box of documents and a photo storage box set up in the same way and if you store the boxed together, everything is always within reach.
Digitizing Family Artifacts
If you are using a computer to search for your family history, (and let’s be honest, in this day and age just most family historians do) digitizing your family photos and documents is wise.
Scanning your artifacts into your computer will not only give you all of your photos and documents at your fingertips, you will be saving the originals from frequent handling and harm.
By organizing genealogy digital files on your computer, you will be able to pull up photos and documents just by searching a name, that is if you label all of them as you save them.
How to label and organize digital genealogy files
When I scan a photo into my computer, I label it by the full names of the subjects in the photos. When I have multiple photos of a person, I will label the photo by their full name and something in the photos or by their relationship to the family. For example: Elizabeth Alice Jones on farm or Elizabeth Alice Jones daughter of Sam Jones. If you are lucky enough to have a date on the photo, you can add that information also.
I treat documents pretty much the same way as photos, but they get more of a description. For a census record it would be the census name, the year, and then the person of interest’s name.
Organizing Genealogy Digital Files
To organize all of these scanned photos and documents into folders on my computer, I treat my computer like the file boxes mentioned above. When I am done, I have something that looks like this:
For most family groups, this setup works for me. If I need to break down the folders further by category, I can. And by having the files properly labeled, I will always be able to find them just by typing what I am looking for into the search box.
You can also organize your photos and documents using genealogy software, but I prefer not to do this. Software updates or changing your software company can cause changes that are not always friendly to how you have files organized. I have had to reorganize my files through software more than once because of an update and I would much rather have spent that time searching for new information.
And that brings me to losing information.
I can not stress this enough. Always back up your files to an external source other than your computer. I keep an external hard drive to back up my files, but you can also use cloud services such as Google Drive, Box or Dropbox for online storage. Most of these offer free storage up to a so many gigabytes. Both of these methods are equally as good as long as you remember to back up your computer.
In the end, no matter how you organize your family history research, whether it be in boxes or on a computer, if it works for you, do it. It will be you who must access the documents and you will be the one who needs to find it.
And as always,
Enjoy the Journey and Happy Searching.
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