Organizing Your Files
A simple system for organizing family history files, key filing principles, and links to alternative filing system descriptions.
There are as many ways to organize your file as there are researchers. Each person develops his own system over time. The purpose of this article is to suggest a simple system that can be adapted to a wide variety of situations as your experience grows.
- 1 Value of Organizing Your Files
- 2 Organizing Principles
- 3 Easy System: One Family = One File Folder
- 4 Setting Up an Organized System
- 5 Keeping the System Organized
- 6 Document Numbers and Filing Order
- 7 Practical Matters
- 8 Links to Other Sites about Organizing
- 9 Related Content
- 10 See also
Value of Organizing Your Files
Being organized helps you to better collate sources, compare them, evaluate them, identify discrepancies, and make reasonable conclusions. Well-documented family group records are the best source of ideas for research objectives. Up-to-date family group records also help you judge the reliability and fit of newly discovered sources with what you already know. The main value of organized research logs is to show all the sources you have searched, and help you recall your search purposes and strategies. Good logs help you resume research after a pause, and avoid re-using sources already tried. Too many negative searches on a research log show it is time to search in a different way. Being well organized saves you time, and it contributes to better research and results.
- Organize and document AS YOU GO! Before you start research have a research log and well-documented family group record in hand. After research do not lay your head on your pillow until you have finished your paper work and filing.
- Hierarchy of research goals. Have an overall goal to share your research findings with others. Thereunder have a goal to research a cluster of families—usually families that settled near each other. Thereunder have a goal to thoroughly document the events in one of those families before starting research on the next family. Have a goal to understand that family, and why they behaved as they did. Thereunder have an objective to document one event at a time in one person’s life in that family. If the first search fails, continue with that objective with different sources, jurisdictions, or repositories. Don’t give up until you find a source to document the selected event or exhaust all the possibilities trying.
- Study families in community context. Get to know the kin and neighbors and the roles they played in your ancestor’s family.
- Research the easiest events first. What you learn from easier documents will help you find more difficult to locate sources.
- Do NOT reorganize the way described below until you pick up research on a family—no mass reorganization of all files at once.
- Do not be discouraged if your filing system is not perfect. We get better with experience.
Easy System: One Family = One File Folder
This system is based on creating one file folder for each family you research.
One Family consists of a father, a mother, and their children.
One File Folder (a manila file folder) contains:
- family group record (required)
- pedigree chart (optional)
- maps of family settlements (optional)
- research log (required)
- photocopies of source documents (required) in order by your document number.
Setting Up an Organized System
| Tip: Do NOT change your old files to a new note keeping system all at once. Start slowly with just the one family you are researching right now. Wait to organize the file of another family until you start research on that family.|
- Write the name of the husband (and his birth and death year, if known) and his wife’s name and dates on the manila folder tab. The same husband’s name and dates should appear on every piece of paper in the folder.
- Keep the file folders in alphabetical order by the name of the head of the household.
- A metal or plastic clasp to hold paper in the file is optional.
- Compile and print a well-documented family group record to put in the folder. Ideally there would be at least one source footnote for every event on the family group. Also, you are encouraged to add custom events beyond birth, marriage, and death. For example, show events like censuses, migrations, land purchases or sales, and wills on the family group record as well.
- Prepare a research log to put in the folder. List all the sources you searched, and describe your search strategies on this log.
Keeping the System Organized
In order to be organized, commit to start with the research already organized as you start on the family. And commit to keep it that way as you go.
Prepare for each new search. While looking at the family group record for the family, pick a research objective (one person in the family, and one event in that person’s life) to research. Write that objective on the family research log. Select a source you hope will document that event and write the source footnote data on the research log. Get most of the information for the footnote from the catalog of the repository where you are working. Write the footnote data on the research log BEFORE you look at the source.
Follow-up on each search. To stay organized, it is important to commit to finish the paperwork and filing BEFORE the next search begins.
• if the search is negative
- Write nil in the research log’s results field.
- Continue trying to document the same event as before, but using a different source, different jurisdiction, or different repository.
• if the search is positive
Do these nine tasks before starting another search.
- Photocopy the source.
- Write footnote data in the margin on front.
- Write on back your full document number.
- Finish your research log by filling-in your document number and summarizing the search results.
- Transfer each piece of family history data from each new source to your family group record.
- Cite ALL sources found for each event on your family group record.
- Use the footnotes comment area to give a preliminary evaluation of the source.
- Print and file the updated family group record.
- File the source photocopy.
Document Numbers and Filing Order
Write a document number that you create on the back of each document photocopy, and put the same number on your research logs. File documents in order by that number within the family’s folder. These will make your research logs a table of contents to your source copies.
There are two parts to your document number:
- File Name. The first part of your document number is the name of the file (same husband’s name and dates as on folder tab), for example, William FRAZIER 1826-1881.
- Next Available Number.If you already have 7 documents in the file, the next available number is 8. Append the next available number to finish your complete document number, for example
| William |
Start over with number 1 in each different family’s folder.
Each ancestor is in two families (once as a child, and once as a parent). Log and file sources for events prior to marriage in the father’s folder. Log and file events starting with marriage in the husband’s folder.
When a source lists more than one family:
- Pick the most predominant family on the source document.
- Put the document copy in that family’s file.
- Compose your document number based on that family.
- Write your document number on the back of the copy, AND . . .
- Log such a source on all applicable research logs. Some logs will list another family’s numbers. That is good—make each log a list of all sources that apply to that family regardless of where they are filed.
2nd marriages, in-laws, and step-children. Log and file sources about these relatives in the file of their closest relative that is on your pedigree.
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.
Do NOT create one huge research log for all families. Such a log is not useful as a table of contents to a particular family’s source copies.
Individual folders and locality folders. Some researchers like to expand the basic one family = one folder system by also creating a folder for selected individuals, or sometimes all the people in one locality. These are options, but doing this creates questions about which folder gets which sources.
Links to Other Sites about Organizing
- Organize Your Records. A '5-Minute Genealogy' video on organzing your records. Describes how to create a document storage system that allows quick access to notes you have already gathered and preserves your material for the next generation.
- Organize Your Records. One of the "Principles of Family History Research" series of wiki articles.
- Cyndi’s List: Organizing Your Research. Links to dozens of Internet sites about organizing genealogical research files.
- DiviFile empowers you with Faceted Classification, an organization method used by librarians, in organizing your research.
- Organizing Your Family Records in Beginner’s Guide to Family History Research. Deals with a computer program filing system, family group records, research notes, correspondence, supplies and photography.
- Document AS YOU GO!
- Organizing Your Computer Files Class Handout (.pdf)[domain expired 11/15/2009]
- Rookie Mistakes