Organizing Your Information (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Organizing Your Information

It is most important to decide as early as possible how you are going to organize your accumulation of genealogical material. You will need to make decisions about how and where you are going to organize Facts (Data) as well as your supporting Documentation.

Whatever system is used must be capable of expansion since you are involved with a growing collection of materials. It must be simple to use and be consistent throughout your work. Spending time thinking and planning how you are going to organize before you begin is far easier on the nerves and leads to greater productivity.

Organization implies thinking out a system that will work for you, and planning the actual spaces to file facts (data) and the four types of genealogical information (oral, written, visual and artefacts.) We’ll deal with each of these in turn. Remember that the most efficient system for you will be planned around how you want to retrieve items from it. In other words, how you want to access it determines how best to set it up.

Computers and Card Indexes will store facts but not documents or other evidence, although scanning now allows more options. Certainly computers and cards can store citations for the sources. Both can be used to manipulate information, but card indexes are very limited in this respect, whereas computers are the ultimate luxury system. File Folders and Binders will store facts and information on paper (documentation), but will not sort and manipulate the data.

Nowadays most genealogists prefer a combination of:

  • A computer for storage and manipulation of facts (data).
  • Either file folders or binders for keeping a hard copy from the computer together with the documentation.
  • Other appropriate storage facilities for oral and visual media and artefacts.

Warning: With family history one tends to get diverted into other fascinating areas such as local history, or particular trades or professions associated with one’s ancestors. If you develop interests in such subjects then you should set up separate filing systems for them, by subject. You would then choose storage and organization systems appropriate to that collection. For example, you may have all your ancestors in file folders, but find it convenient to have an indexed binder for your collection of documents on ships, or shoemaking, or ancestral villages. Do not try to combine subject material into ‘people’ files or binders. Mixed systems do not work!

Organization of Facts (Data)

Computers

Computers are designed to store, process and communicate information (Hawgood 1995) and this is precisely what you will be doing—storing, processing and communicating information about people, their family connections and the events in their lives. To find the latest information on available genealogy programmes and their capabilities consult:

Card Indexes

Formerly, many genealogists used 3" x 5" or 4" x 6" card indexes for storing data about individuals. With a standard notation system on each card and arranged alphabetically by surname, then first name, then by date of birth this was a wonderfully simple system. A sample of such a card is illustrated here.

Index Card Notation System

NAME_________________________________RIN or ID #____________


FATHER _____________________ MOTHER _____________________

b.______ date________________place__________________________

c.______ date________________place__________________________

d.______ date________________place__________________________

bur._____ date________________place__________________________

m.______ date________________place__________________________


SPOUSE_______________________________

CHILDREN:

___ name_______________date of birth___________place_____________

___ name_______________date of birth___________place_____________

___ name_______________date of birth___________place_____________

___ name_______________date of birth___________place_____________

___ name_______________date of birth___________place_____________

[On Reverse—Census, Probate and other notes.]


Card indexes suffer from a few drawbacks when compared with other methods, for example:

  • The amount of storable data is limited by the size of the card.
  • Relationships are not easy to see at a glance beyond parents and children.
  • One cannot store the documentation along with the data.
  • Cards have to be rewritten when too messy with additions and alterations.
  • Storage space is a problem with a large study as one long drawer only holds about 750 cards. I didn’t fancy starting my 35,000 JUPP study this way.
  • If you tip the box over you are lost!

However, card files still have their uses in special projects, especially if you don’t have a computer. If you want to keep an inventory of all of the houses that your folks have lived in, or ships they have served on, or a bibliography file or list of heirlooms, and so on, a card file can be just right for your purpose. Most genealogists nowadays prefer to use a computer for storing and managing their data, and one of the next two methods for storing their documentation.

File Folders

File folders can be combined with storage of documentation if you are not using a computer, or if computerized, at least a Family Group Record computer printout should be placed at the front of each couple’s file. Hard copies of all your data and documentation can be stored together, making it simple to review each person’s data. It is somewhat simpler to find the right family in files than in binders, but they are not as good to transport and display.

Indexed Binders

Indexed binders can be combined with storage of documentation if you are not using a computer, or if computerized, at least a Family Group Record computer printout should be placed at the front of each couple’s section. Printed copies of all your data and documentation can be stored together, making it simple to review each person’s data. Binders are easier to transport and show to your family than file folders, but perhaps a little less convenient to find a particular family.

Organization of Oral Information

Tapes should have labels and detailed lists of contents. Do this as soon as you make them or you will forget the details! You could keep all your transcripts in one file, or put them in the file for the person with whom you talked. Consistency is important: treat each in the same manner, then you will know where to look for any one item. Each fact gleaned from the interview should then be added to the appropriate person’s file, with a notation as to its source. For example if, when talking to Aunt Edna, you found out that Uncle George was married in 1928, then put that fact in Uncle George’s file as, “In 1986 Aunt Edna BROWN told me that her brother George STEVENS was married in 1928.”

Organization of Written Information

Here the big decision is whether to go with file folders or binders. Consider the storage space available at home as well as what suits you personally. Some people just get along better with neatly labelled binders on a shelf. Others are much happier with a systematically organized filing cabinet. Plan for expansion, this hobby just grows and grows!

Go to your local office superstore and examine the wide range of folders, binders and colour-coded indexers available. When you buy, keep the packaging materials, as well as noting the store name and price, so you can advise your nearest and dearest what you would really like for Christmas and birthday presents!

Once you have decided whether you are a file folder person or a binder addict, the next thing is to consider which method of organizing your documents will work best for you: In Order of Acquisition, By Ancestral Number, By Generation or By Ancestral Name. It is best to choose the simplest system that will do the job for any particular project.

Method 1. In Order of Acquisition

One simply numbers each item as it is acquired and then files them in numerical order in a file folder (which will rapidly become a series of file folders), or in your loose-leaf binder(s).

With this method you will need to firstly, keep at the front of the folder/binder a list of items held, and secondly, cross-reference by making a note on the appropriate ancestor’s file card, computer page or family group sheet of the item held and its number.

Example of Order of Acquisition Method

Item # Description Where noted
1 My birth certificate My file card
2 My parents marriage certificate Their file card
3 Aunt Jane SMITH's funeral card William and Jane SMITH's card
4 Grandpa BROWN's army record Albert BROWN's card

This method is easy to implement but suffers from the drawback that it is hard to review the material on any one person quickly and there is no provision for general family information. It is useful in certain types of collections ancillary to your main research.

For example:

  • Collection of pictures of various ships associated with your family
  • Your collection of tape recordings
  • Organizing a heap of miscellaneous information

Method 2. By Ancestral Number

Here one chooses a system of numbering ancestors, for example the standard Sosa-Stradonitz Pedigree Chart numbers and creates a file folder or binder section for each one. Everything for that ancestor is then filed together in that folder or section, and these are filed numerically.

Example of Ancestral Number Method

Item
Ancestor 4 – William JONES
4-1
William JONES birth certificate
4-2
William JONES death certificate
4-3
William JONES trade card
4-4
William JONES land record
4-5
William JONES family on 1881 census

This system works well for those researching only their direct ancestors, and can be modified to include siblings of ancestors (4a, 4b, 4c etc.) and still work well. It is simple to understand and use. One needs a standard Sosa-Stradonitz -numbered pedigree chart close at hand to remind one of the ancestral number for each ancestor.

To include more relatives, one can use a more complex numbering system of course, but one is still limited to the amount of numbers in the chosen system.

Some of these mathematical systems are horrendously complex. If one’s research goals include more than just ‘siblings of ancestors’ this method is rather unwieldy, especially for the beginner. The author prefers to not reduce ancestors to mere numbers. For most genealogists names are far easier to work with and one gets to know the people this way. It is much more interesting to work with George the parson and George the butcher than with IIIa7b and IVd4h.

With this method there is no provision for general family information.

Method 3. By Generation—Ascending or Descending

Here each couple has a file folder or binder section, and these are filed according to their place within the family, generation by generation. One can proceed backwards in time starting with yourself (Ascending—see chart below), or forwards, starting with your remotest ancestor (Descending—see chart below). With these methods there is no provision for general family information.

There are also several complications which are outlined below, but these systems do have particular uses.

Example of Generation Method—Ascending

Generation File 1 File 2 File 3 Etc.
1 – purple Yourself Your brother Your sister etc.
2 – blue Your parents Your uncle Your aunt etc.
3 – green Your grandparents Your great uncle Your great aunt etc.
4 – yellow Your great grandparents Your great grand uncle Your great grand aunt etc.
5 – orange Your 2nd GG Your 2nd GG uncle Your 2nd GG aunt etc.
etc.



This method works well if you are researching only one surname line; a separate binder or file drawer/section would have to be used for each additional surname. Advantages are that siblings can be next to each other in date order, there is a logical progression backwards in time, and you can continue to add further generations as you research further back.

There are problems as your data expands as it is more difficult to keep track of where each file is located, you have to refer to an index at the front, or have an incredible memory.

Example of Generation Method—Descending

File
Order
Generation 1 Generation 2 Generation 3 Generation 4 Etc.
1 Remotest ancestor



2
Child 1


3
Child 2


4

Grandchild 1

5

Grandchild 2

6
Child 3


7

Grandchild 1

8


Great grandchild 1
9


Great grandchild 2
10


Great grandchild 3
11

Grandchild 2

12


Great grandchild 1
etc.




This works well for those interested only in the descendants of one couple. There is a logical progression forwards through the generations, and newly discovered branches, newlyweds and newborn twigs can readily be added. As the data expands an indexed descendancy chart would be essential in locating particular files.

A slight disadvantage is that if one decided later to research further back in time, thought has to be given to the correct placement of the additional sections at the front.

Method 4. By Ancestral Name

In this method each couple has a file folder or binder section, filed alphabetically according to the husband’s surname then first name. All documents pertaining to this couple and their unmarried children are kept in this file/section. A child in whom you are interested, whether married or not, has his or her own file, and copies of items relating to their birth/christening and early life are transferred from their parents’ to their own file.

It is very useful to have a general file, differentiated by colour, for each family name. One can collect here the correspondence on this family and any general material relating to several people, and even items that look interesting but have not yet been assigned to a file of their own, such as miscellaneous christenings of possible family members.

Example of Ancestral Name Method: Starting Stage

Title
Colour
Contents
JOHNSON
Orange
General Family Information.
JOHNSON, Adam and Martha
Beige
All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Bertram and Jane
Beige
All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Christopher and Mary
Beige
All documents relating to this couple and children.


Suggested Order of Arrangement of Items Within a Couple’s Folder

1
Family Group Record

2
Husband
birth, christening, marriage, death, burial, probate.
3
Wife
birth, christening, death, burial, probate.
4
Unmarried children (in order of birth) or those whose lines you are not pursuing
birth, christening, marriage, death, burial, probate.
5
Census records by date

6
Miscellaneous items

7
Correspondence

8
Research Log

9
Research Ideas Log

The General Family Information Folder can be subdivided as it gets bigger into Census Records, Correspondence, Family Trees, Parish Register Entries as shown in the chart below.

Example of Ancestral Name Method: Middle Stage

Title Colour Contents
JOHNSON – CENSUS Purple Census Records.
JOHNSON – CIVIL REGISTRATION Blue Civil Registration Lists.
JOHNSON – CORRESPONDENCE Green Letters sent and received that do not fit in any family file.
JOHNSON – FAMILY TREES Yellow Any family tree for Johnson family.
JOHNSON – MISCELLANEOUS Orange Any Johnson information that doesn’t fit in any other file.
JOHNSON – PARISH REGISTERS Red Lists of Johnsons from various parish registers.
JOHNSON – PROBATE Black Lists of Johnson wills and admons.
JOHNSON, Adam and Martha Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Bertram and Jane Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Christopher and Mary Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.

Method 4 (By Ancestral Name) is probably the most popular method as it enables one to review all of the material for any one person quickly, and allows of infinite expansion in any direction that research may take in the future. An alphabetical arrangement is the simplest method of finding anyone quickly, but one would need to refer to the family charts to find where they fit into the family. There is, in addition, plenty of expandable room for general family information.

You may find that file folders are your choice for people, but binders are preferable for subjects. This is OK; but do then keep all the people in folders' 'and all the subjects in binders.

Example of Ancestral Name Method: Advanced Stage 

Title Colour Contents
JOHNSON – CENSUS Purple Census Records
- 1841 – by Piece or Film #
- 1851 – by Piece or Film #
- 1861 – by Piece or Film #
- 1871 – by Piece or Film #
- 1881 – by Piece or Film #
- 1891 – by Piece or Film #
JOHNSON – CIVIL REGISTRATION Blue Civil Registration Lists
- England – births
- England – marriages
- England – deaths
- Ireland – births
- Ireland – marriages
- Ireland – deaths
- Scotland – births
- Scotland – marriages
- Scotland – deaths
JOHNSON – CORRESPONDENCE Green Letters sent and received that do not fit in any family file. Alphabetical by correspondent, using large paper clip to hold each separate correspondent’s material together.
JOHNSON – FAMILY TREES Yellow Any family tree for Johnson family. Alphabetical by head of tree.
JOHNSON – MISCELLANEOUS Orange Any Johnson information that doesn’t fit in any other file.
JOHNSON – PARISH REGISTERS Red Lists of Johnsons from various parish registers. Alphabetical by country, then county, then parish.
JOHNSON – PROBATE Black Lists of Johnson wills and admons. Alphabetical by country and name of court.
JOHNSON, Adam and Martha Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Bertram and Jane Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Christopher and Mary Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.

Organization of Visual Information

Your illustrations, whether photographs or other materials, will first have to be identified. Together with the gathering of oral history this should be any researcher’s first priority as the source of information won’t be around forever. Identify your photos before the relative with all the knowledge in her head dies.

You should attempt to find out the identity of the subject, the date, the location, and whether there was a special reason for a photo to be taken or illustration bought. In the days when photography was still a novelty and up until about World War II few people had their photo taken without there being a reason. Perhaps a couple just got engaged, a young man was about to leave on army service, or the group was a 50th wedding anniversary party.

Similarly, if one finds an illustration or photograph of a shop, church or house amongst family papers there must have been a reason for someone to save that item. The family historian should always ask herself, “Why was this picture taken, or this clipping saved?” The answer will often provide further insights into the family history.

During the examination of each old photograph note the name and address of the photographer, and look on the back for any other clues. Old directories can be searched to find the years of operation of a certain photographer at certain addresses, and this will aid in identification.

Unlabelled Photos

If you inherit a boxful of mainly unlabelled, amateur snapshots set aside an afternoon (or six!) and try this technique:

  • First write down what you know about the photos’ provenance (where they came from).
  • Go through the box carefully and number each photo lightly on the back with a pigma pen, and make notes as to which photos are in the same envelope. It could be important later in the identification process to be able to reassemble the original order.
  • Start a file of cards, sheets of paper or on computer with a section for each numbered photo.
  • Sort the photos into piles by size. This helps to associate a group of photos with a camera, and perhaps a person who took them.
  • Next take each pile and sort further by any distinguishing developers’ numbers or marks stamped on the back, or fancy cut edges, or width of white margins. This groups them into individual films and hence makes a grouping in time.
  • Now take a look at one pile and see if you can identify any person, place, date or event. These should be written in that photo’s file, and as photos tend to be taken in groups then some of this information may be transferable to others on the same film pile. Identities may not be more than ‘man with large moustache’, ‘garden backing onto railway line’, or ‘same girl as in pictures 18 and 76’ at this stage, but you can build a profile of each photo and each film pile.
  • Go through all other piles in similar fashion, adding all ideas and notes on similarities to your individual photo files.
  • You can now start to compare the piles and make them into a timeline. Try and figure out who took each film.
  • Compare with information and photos of known people, places and events that you already possess.
  • Show them to older family members, for example by sending a photocopy of a group of photos―these may be more readily identifiable than a single photo. Don’t forget older friends and neighbours as well.

Involving Others in Identifying Photos

When sending photos to others to assist in identification it helps to:

  • First photocopy the pictures, perhaps in groups if they are small ones, but with room to write on the page.
  • Carefully store your originals.
  • Number the pictures on the first set of photocopies and keep the set.
  • Make copies of your set of photocopies and mail to relatives.
  • Ask them to mark up and send back, or (if they wish to keep the photocopies) describe them by number.
  • Ask for any names, dates, places and events that they can remember, and also if they have any other photos not in this collection. A collection of old family photos may have been divided between relatives at the death of an ancestor, so other relatives may have others from the set.
  • Follow-ups by phone are simple as you can refer to the picture number.
  • Indicate that you want to be able to share all photos (free or at reasonable cost) with any family member who is interested.
  • Photographs may be filed together with the written documentation in binders or file folders, in a separate photograph album, or in photo envelopes in boxes. Other illustrations can be stored either in the ancestor’s file that they refer to, or in a separate illustrations album, or binder with page protectors. Specific albums designed to hold postcards are available.

Notes should be kept in each person’s file as to what photos and other illustrations pertaining to them are in your collection, where you have filed them and who owns the originals.

Organization of Artifacts

Try to identify each item as far as possible as to its history of ownership and date of manufacture, and then keep notes in the relevant ancestral files. They can provide important clues as to occupations, interests and hobbies.

Additional Help

Also see Organizing Your Home Base (National Institute)
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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.