There’s no perfect way to organize

There's no one right way to organizeIf there’s one thing that I’ve learned in nine years helping people get organized in their homes, it’s that there’s no one right way to organize. Organizing systems that work beautifully for me (or another client) may be seriously flawed for you. That’s why professional organizers can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to organizing…we have to  customize everything for the client.

This is true in organizing a home. And it’s also true in organizing your genealogy research. There are many ways to  organize your family history–just take a look at the many and varied answers for any particular question in the popular The Organized Genealogist group on Facebook.

So that’s why I bristled a little as I read a document called Organize Your Files on the Family Search wiki about how to organize your genealogy research. I actually use the recommended one-family-per-folder system for my paper records. (I learned about it more than a decade ago on But the absolutes in the article, the my-way-or-the-highway tone made it less useful to me.

For example:

Computer note keeping. Computers are great for genealogists—but they are not the final storage medium. Keep your research notes on computer if you like, but make a paper copy at the end of the day. Your descendants may not know how to boot your computer, but they will be able to read your paper printouts.

Make paper copies of electronic sources such as Internet sites, email, fax, or telephone interviews.

I don’t agree with making paper copies of everything. For some people, it will feel worth the effort. For others, not. And that’s okay.

Th Family Search wiki has loads of good information. But this article served as a good reminder to me that gently guiding, rather than ordering people around,  can be more effective.

I think some people thrive on structure and probably really appreciate being told exactly what to do.  But for others, strict instructions can feel intimidating or overwhelming. Me, I prefer gentler language with options built in. I like to tell you what works for me, but I don’t pretend that it will necessarily work for you. After all, tweaking is a good thing.

Making organizing easier

How to make organizing your genealogy easierIf you’re like me, the thrill of doing genealogy research is about uncovering clues and putting them together to make exciting discoveries. It’s about connecting me with others. And it’s about being a detective.

If you’re going to do a good job of putting clues together, your information needs to be organized. If you research without keeping track of your findings, your chances of success–or at least of verifiable success–are reduced. So, in my opinion, it’s critical to keep your genealogy information organized.

But so many people don’t enjoy the task of organizing information and papers. So they let an overwhelming backlog build up. I’ve chosen to make my living helping people get organized, so of course I enjoy organizing. But I know that for many people it feels like drudgery. If you’re someone who doesn’t like organizing your family history, how can you make it easier for yourself? I have some ideas.

  • Recognize the importance. Make getting and staying organized a priority by acknowledging that being organized makes you a more effective researcher. When you’re organized, you can easily put clues together and you don’t have to rely on your memory of names and dates–that information is at your fingertips.
  • Divide organizing projects into small chunks. To keep from being overwhelmed by your backlog, work on just a little bit at a time. Set a timer and work for a set (short) period of time. Or organize a small area of your genealogy space–a pile on your desk for example. Keep repeating until your backlog is gone.
  • Stay on top of it. Create a habit of organizing at the end of each session. When you’re finished with a genealogy research session, build in time to file papers or electronic files. Doing this each time you research will keep a backlog from forming again.
  • Jettison the “To File” file. Rather than putting something in a file or pile of papers to be filed later, just file it now.
  • Let go of perfection. There’s no such thing as perfectly organized–don’t even strive for it. Instead, set a goal of being organized enough.
  • Let it be easy. I always say that organizing systems should be as complex as they need to be and not one bit more. Don’t make yourself jump through hoops to put things away. (See my blog post How accessible are your genealogy materials? for more information on that.)

If you get through your backlog in small chunks at a time and create a habit of organizing as you go, you can stay organized relatively painlessly. And I’m willing to bet that if tend to resist organizing, this will make your genealogy research not only more effective but more enjoyable!

Going paperless

Going paperless with my genealogy filesI just realized I’m gradually going paperless when it comes to my genealogy research. It’s been almost a year and a half since I wrote the post To print or not to print?  in January 2013. Back then, I was working hard to resist the temptation to print source documents for my files.

Well you know what? That temptation is completely gone. In fact, I’ve been going in the opposite direction as I slowly work on marrying my paper and electronic files. I’m in the process of making sure that all the documents in my paper files are properly named and filed on my hard drive. Most of these documents were originally found online, so it’s easy for me to find them in electronic form and save them to my hard drive. But if I don’t have an electronic version, it’s easy enough to scan the paper version.

I’ve found several advantages to going paperless:

  • My electronic files are at my fingertips; I don’t have to walk to the file cabinet
  • My electronic files are much more portable–they’re on my computer or accessible on mobile devices or remote computers via Dropbox
  • My electronic files take up much less space
  • My physical desktop is less cluttered during a research session
  • Typically, I can zoom in and magnify electronic files, so reading them is much easier on my eyes
  • I save paper and toner, of course

This feels like a really big shift and it happened so gradually that I didn’t even realize it! I think a key component was coming up with an electronic file system that works for me. That gives me confidence that I will find information on my hard drive. (I’m still working on properly filing all the electronic documents that might have been misfiled before I set up that electronic file system.)

How about you? Are you paper or electronic? Or perhaps both?

Document everything

Document everything in your genealogy researchReason number 33,662 that you should document everything in your genealogy research: You can’t rely on your memory.

Today, I was trying to verify which ancestor of mine had fought in the Civil War as a substitute. I remember finding his records on and seeing the document that designated him as a substitute for an individual of means who could afford to pay my ancestor to fight in his place. I thought it was Benjamin Franklin Igleheart, my great-great grandfather. But when I looked at his record in my software, I found no notation whatsoever about that.

At least I remembered having found a substitute soldier, even if I couldn’t remember who it was. So I looked through the records in Reunion of all my male ancestors who were born at a time where they might have served. Nothing. I tried searching on Reunion but got nowhere. So I finally walked across the room and pulled out B.F. Igleheart’s paper file. There it was: all the info that I had printed out, but not otherwise documented. Bad researcher!

If I had finished going through the paper files of the Adams ancestors, I would have found this info and documented it. But that process probably won’t be finished for quite some time.

I’m so glad I have committed to documenting everything by entering information into my software, with source citation, and creating electronic files of the digital images of the documents. I am conforming to my file naming convention and I’m tagging the digital files so I don’t have to have my papers file to find something.

I used to believe that I would never forget certain facts I’ve learned through my genealogy research. As those facts add up (and my research grows), I know that’s just simply the case. Now all I have to remember is to enter everything into my Reunion software and tag and properly file all my electronic files.