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July 30, 2010

Too Many Ancestors!

There are as many ways to organize your genealogy files and documents as there are surname variations. When I first started acquiring more information and photocopies of documents (many years ago) I used file folders - one for my father's side and one for my mother's.

I quickly realized that method wasn't working. My files were becoming too cumbersome and it was too hard to figure out what I had or what I needed.

Still believing that file folders were the method for me, I created one file folder for each surname - McGinnis, King, Dawson, Downey, Peer, Vollick etc for my dad's side and Fuller, Simpson, Page, Stead etc for my mom's. I colour coded the folders - pink for maternal lines, and blue for paternal. It worked well. For a short time. Soon I was lost - I had done so much research that I could no longer remember my lines easily. That meant I couldn't remember where Emily Sutton fit. What file folder was she in? Her husband's? Who was her husband? I had too many names and ancestors to remember.

So I switched to binders. One binder for each surname. In the front of each binder was a page with a cross-referencing system for every ancestor. I could at least look at the first page of every binder to see where Emily Sutton or another barely-remembered ancestor fit.

Soon my binder collection outgrew my bookshelves. And I grew weary of taking down each of the 30 plus binders one at a time to check for a name.

Yes you guessed it, I went back to file folders. I bought more filing cabinets. I filled one wall of my computer room. But for some lines I was searching all branches, that is, all siblings of my direct ancestors on every generation. That meant that soon I had to give one entire filing cabinet drawer to just one family name. So my PEER and VOLLICK and McGINNIS files soon had one drawer each. Inside I labelled file folders with titles PEER-Census, PEER-Land, PEER-B/M/D. All documents and notes for that specific family of PEER went into their respective folders. That worked well for many years.

But recently I realized it was not working for me anymore. It was too difficult to easily check such things as what census records I was missing for each person. I know I could keep a research log or a list by ancestor of what I have and what I need. But that proved to be just way too much extra work for me and didn't seem to answer my requirements either.

My next brief attempt at reorganization involved buying hanging file folder cases. Inside each I put 6 file folders. They were labelled by individual name - Peer, Jacob - DOCUMENTS; Peer, Jacob - NOTES and Peer, Jacob - SCANNED. That allowed me to sort by person by documents, notes and whether or not I had scanned the documents. I love this method. But there's a huge problem! I have too many ancestors. I seriously do.

I've been researching for over 30 years. I've done a lot of work on my lines. I've found ancestors back to the early 1600s on several of my Dad's side. And let's not even get into my Mother's ENGLISH side! English records go back a long long way. With diligent research you can find a lot of ancestors going back a very long way.

Since I haven't got a room big enough to put all those hanging file folders (think 40 ft x 40 ft might be big enough), this method isn't going to work for all my lines. Especially since I'm very keen on searching all siblings on all generations. Phew. Why do I search siblings? Because you never know what details you might find about your direct by looking for a sibling's marriage or death or obituary etc.

So I'm in a bit of a mess. I have my research partially in hanging file folders. I have some in my filing cabinets. I have a few in binders. My next step is to sit down and think long and hard about how to organize thousands and thousands of pieces of paper in a way that suits me and my work habits.

That's a challenge.

I also need a good cross-referencing system so I can find a specific ancestor easily.

I need to decide where a female ancestor goes - with her father and mother? With her husband? With both, that is, with her parents until she marries, then with her husband?

I'm leaning towards going back to binders so that I can toss documents (photocopies) into plastic sleeves (perhaps one per individual) and put a list of what's in each sleeve on the top. That would allow me to quickly see what documents I have for each person and what I'm missing.

I'll tackle that after Christmas I think! If you're in the same boat as I am, just remember that whatever method of genealogy organization you choose has to suit you and no one else. Wish me luck!


Ginger Smith said...

Oh ok, I'm glad I'm not the only one in this same boat. Only most of my files on are my computer. I gave up on the file cabinets and file folders. I also have the problem of not knowing whether I scanned something. Or if I did scan it, I can never find it again on the computer. I look forward to hearing your solution. Keep us posted!

Patrice Houck Schadt said...

I am in a similar boat. My past solution was to take my vital documents and put them in the cardboard legal type folders (letter size). I did this because in the event of a hurricane or evacuation those are the folders I need to take. However, that has mushroomed to 3 file drawers. Although they are by surname, it still is difficult to find things. It needs more work. I have been able to get back to working on my database now and hope to also get my files straightened out. This a dream that I think a lot of us share.

Janice said...

I wish I had half your organizational ability. Right now there are five boxes that paper comes in labeled with family names and stuffed full of scraps and scans and pictures and books related to my families. Each was stuffed with the intention of eventually "sorting it all out." And that is just the beginning of a room full of genealogy. I am getting better about just accepting that I enjoy the hunt and not the organization and I'll let my heirs sort or toss.

Free Genealogy Resources said...

Even though I don't have near as many years in researching my tree as you do, I'm already realizing that as my research continues, my organization methods must as well. Right now, I'm using a combination of methods.

I have a binder for family group sheets organized by generation. Other binders hold my documents and copies. I group documents by type and then arrange each type by surname. The exception is census records, which I first order by year and then each year by surname.

As I scan something related to an ancestor into the computer, I link it to the individual in my genealogy software. That way if I click on say my great great grandmother, I can easily see that I have the 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses, her marriage certificate and her death certificate.

Last, but not least, I have an index card file. On each card, I put the person's name (including married for women), birth and death information and then add the sources I have for them.

Mary said...

Great topic and one I have been reading about. I'll be looking forward to hearing your results and I like that idea of a cross reference.

Mary said...

Why not digitize your files and toss out anything that is not an original? It sounds like a big job to get started on but trust me it is well worth the time and effort. I started the first of the year and am 90% done...but it sounds like you have more than me! Start small...anything you get from now on out you save to your computer and skip printing it out...especially the stuff you find on the internet.

Genealogy Blogger said...

@Mary - I'm not comfortable relying on one method of preserving my documents. Digitization is a great extra method but for me I want hard copies too. Not just for safety (if digitizing fails for any reason I have a backup with a hard copy) but because for me there's still something about pulling out a hard copy and poring over it in detail. I work better from paper when I'm analysing my data.

Genealogy Blogger said...

@Janice. I had to laugh when I read your comment about your heirs can sort your work out. Good point! For me though the organization is so that I can function. But everyone is different, whatever suits you is always good

Genealogy Blogger said...

Hey Ginger, Patrice, FGR & Mary - interesting comments and ideas. I like how we all figure out a method that works for us, for different reasons (Patrice because of hurricane/evacuations, etc)

Ginger I love my method of the hanging folders with 3 files in each - so once I put my docs in the DOCUMENT folder, I can leisurely scan them and toss them in the SCANNED file. Once they are all done, I don't need the 2 files anymore. So it's kind of my "in-between" method. Problem is space, it takes up huge amounts of room. I'm thinking of using it to sort/organize my stuff to be scanned, one family at a time. That still leaves me needing to figure out a filing method but I'll keep everyone posted!

Aspiring freelance writer said...

When all my papers, files, and notebooks finally ate my desk- I knew I needed help! lol So, now I am trying to figure out which genealogy software to buy... It seems as if most everyone prefers Family Tree Maker- and all different versions. However, several people have said there are some glitches with Family Tree Maker 2010 and Windows Vista- which is what I have! lol : ) If anyone has genealogy software they are really impressed with, could you please email me at ? Thanks and happy hunting!! : )

Anonymous said...

I am also in the same boat. I have quit researching to try to get my files organized. I am not a very organized person as it is anyway and trying to get all my research organized has been a task that I am not looking forward to. When I think I have found a solution to my problem it just doesn't seem to work for me.

GeneaDiva said...

Check out Clooz. Clooz is the filing system which resolves your filing issues.

Elizabeth said...

The amount of research you have sounds awesome. With almost 20 years, I'm still in the surname file folder stage for originals, and use Reunion on the Mac. I'm am running out of room for my books, though: social histories and local genealogy references.

Just wanted to tell you that I also research the ENGLISH family, particularly a line of Quakers that came from England to Ireland to S.C. to N.C. I occasionally write about them at

Deb said...

GeneaDiva - Clooz does sound great, but it isn't Mac-compatible. Which is unfortunate, since it's been out for YEARS and that is plenty of time to have a competent programmer create a version for Mac OS X. I am investigating Evernote for my research notes, particularly since I can access it from anywhere.

JL said...

It sounds to me like you're missing a cross-referencing system.

Scan as much as possible, also keep the hard copies. (Or scan later. This will at least get your paper connected to your database in the meantime.)

Use a simple numbering system to cross-reference (the digitals,) your database and the paper.

I use Legacy Family Tree and the MRIN Filing System but the MRIN Filing System will work with any database that allows you to use MRIN's. Marriage Record Identification Numbers.

File Your Papers (MRIN Filing System)
MRIN Filing System+ (including the digital connection)

Since you've already got filing cabinets and binders galore (it doesn't matter which) you're miles ahead.