How I organize my family history research

I don’t think I’ve written here about how this professional organizer actually organizes her genealogy stuff. In case you’re curious, I thought I’d tell you about it.

But first, I have to tell you that I’m a paper person. I know I could (and perhaps should) save documents, like census images, as pdfs and just organize them on my computer. But I really like printing them out and keeping them in files. So that’s what I do.

I set up my filing system more than a dozen years ago, based on suggestions I found back then on Files are color coded, with one color for each of my grandparents. I have a hanging file folder for each surname; the file’s color indicates which grandparent’s line that surname falls into. Within the hanging file folders, I have manila folders for each couple I’ve researched, with the husband and wife’s names and birth/death dates written on the label. Each file’s label is color coded to indicate the grandparent’s line.

When I print out a document, I place it in the appropriate folder. Some documents that might logically fall into more than one folder (for example, a census in which an ancestor was a child would belong in the folder she shares with her husband, but, assuming she lived with her parents, it would also fall into their folder). For those, I’ve decided to place the document in the folder of the household head.

One document I’ve created to keep track of where I stand is a records index for each couple that I fill out by hand. It lists which censuses the pair have been found on (individually or together), as well as birth certificates, death certificates and other vital records, military records, burial records etc. I just place an X when I’ve found something and I tell at a glance what’s inside the folder. This takes a little keeping up ad I’m not 100 percent there, but it’s a fairly new innovation for me, and I’m liking it. (You can download a copy of the records index by clicking on the Printables link above.)

I also have a hanging file folder for documents that have been given me by other family members that I’m working on verifying. And I have a hanging file folder that contains files with blank forms (like my index and the census extraction forms) and a thick file that contains the hand-written four-generation ancestral charts I created ten or more years ago. These provide valuable clues as I work toward verifying all the data. In the very front, I keep notebooks where I’ve jotted some handwritten notes through the years.

I keep all these files in an Elfa rolling file cart, which has two mesh drawers in it. In the top, shallow drawer I keep extra labels. In the deeper bottom drawer I keep some family photos and a family history book I just brought back from my recent trip to visit family, as well as the CDs I’ve purchased from Family Tree.

Speaking of Family Tree, I’m a big fan of Family Tree Magazine, as well as the magazine of the National Genealogical Society. I keep those in magazine holders in the closet in which my file cart resides when I’m not using it. I have two holders: one for magazines I’ve read and am keeping for reference, and one for magazines I’ve not yet read.

As I’ve mentioned before, all the data I have verified is entered into Reunion software on my Mac, which syncs with an app on my iPhone. I always enter sources when I enter any data into the software.

Between the paper and the software, I can pretty well find what I want when I want it. That’s my definition of organized. I have to be careful to file anything I print out immediately (there’s nothing worse than a document you need hiding in a “to file” file). I think the confidence I feel in my organizational system, coupled with the fact that I’m carefully sourcing my data, has helped me to keep from feeling overwhelmed by my family history research.  So far, so good!


  1. Vickie Sheridan says:

    Is the Records Index that you have for each couple something that you created or found online? I have many similar forms that you are using but the Records Index sounds very interesting. We also use Reunion for our Mac. Have you seen the new upgrade? My husband is very excited about adding all of the photos but I’m more interested in the info. Good luck in your future searching!

    • Hi, Vickie! I created the records index that I used. Shoot me an email at and I’ll be happy to send it to for your use, if you’d like. (Any other readers are also welcome to email me.)

      The version of Reunion that I have (9) does accept photos, so maybe it’s the upgraded version. So far, I haven’t added any, but I did bring home a few old photos from my parents house, so it might be fun to add them.

      Good luck in your searching, too!

  2. Love your blog. I especially like the comment to file things immediately instead of them going into the to file pile. That’s my biggest organization problem.

    Welcome to Geneabloggers.

    • Debbie, thank you!! I think filing genealogy records immediately is particularly important. It can be so frustrating when you know you saw something but it’s not in the file and then you have to search through a pile. I’m generating so few documents in a single session that filing immediately isn’t a big challenge.

      Thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad you like the blog.

  3. Kristen says:

    Just sent off a note so that I can receive your records index….have attended several classes on genealogy but not learned much about filing, record keeping etc….your site is amazing!!

    • Kristen, I’m glad you find this blog useful! Don’t hesitate to suggest areas you might like me to cover when it comes to organizing. I’ll get that records index off to you right away.

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