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January 3, 2018

Organizing Your Genealogy Files

It's another year, another opportunity to create some kind of organization out of our genealogy files and notes. Yes, I said "our" because I'm pretty sure that most of you are in the same mess I'm in. I'm super organized in the kitchen. Spices are all in alphabetical order. Dishes and glassware are neatly placed by type and pattern. Cereal is in the cupboard in alphabetical order. You get the picture, right?

But my genealogy files? They're a mess, although I prefer to think of them as in a state of "organized chaos". I have had stacks of papers and documents so high they defied gravity. Oddly enough I'm very organized and methodical with the research I do on my New Netherland Settlers project and any genealogy that is not about my own ancestors!

One of the reasons I'm in a bit of a big mess with my personal genealogy is that every year I decide I don't like my current method of organizing my research and I start a new one. Since I've been researching my ancestors for over 30 years, obviously I run out of new methods and repeat former ones, with small modifications.

Over the years I've tried binders, filing cabinets, digital files instead of paper, storage tubs.... you name it, I've probably tried it. Of course within each method there is even more choice. For example when you use binders, you can file by surname, by family group, by location, by type of record, by individual.

I loved binders when I used them. I printed off family group sheets and filed all relevant documents and photos with the appropriate family. It was a great system for me until I had so many files filling dozens of binders and it became cumbersome. That's what happens the longer you look for, and find, ancestors.

Filing cabinets worked well for me until again, I found so many ancestors that my notes and documents filled so many cabinets they could not fit in my small office. Soon we had huge filing cabinets in my office, in the basement, and in our family room.

I'm even worse at organizing digital files. It's boring. It's tedious. I do use Evernote to help me with organizing those genealogy files but I still don't enjoy doing it.

I liked using storage tubs because I could just label each tub and toss the documents in without worrying about chronological order or sorting by location or whatever method might be best. Of course that didn't work well after awhile because I could never find what I wanted and I never got around to organizing the papers in each tub.

One of my family books
A few years ago I hit on the idea to publish books on my ancestors for my children. The books are between 20 and 30 pages and I carefully choose what documents and photos to use. I publish one book for each surname. I start with the furthest back ancestor I have with that surname and print his family group chart, then I include images of various documents of his life.

Each chapter contains documents (and a family group sheet) for the next generation down. I also add research I've done on siblings in each generation. The book ends wherever the surname daughters out for my direct line. This has been really fun and my children are enjoying them.

I'm ensuring that my research is not lost but the drawback is that I can't include every single fact and document. I didn't think it would solve my problem of organizing my papers but I was wrong! I've gone back to using filing cabinets for my research notes and papers, and when I create a book, I am forced to organize those documents before I begin writing.

My husband also came up with the idea of selling these family surname books. Much to my surprise other descendants have purchased them! So it's a win-win situation.  My genealogy gets organized, my children have individual books on our family surnames and ancestors, and other descendants can read about their ancestors.

How do you solve the problem of organizing your genealogy files? 


Kimberli said...

Curious. Where do you have books made? Do you use a specific site?

Our organizing patterns are very similar and I'm wanting to create books. Occasionally I'll do a blog post to capture thoughts and stories. My goal is to somehow turn those into a family narrative in small book format to gift to interested relatives.

Thanks for your timely post!

Olive Tree Genealogy said...


I use different sites to create books, depending what the end goal is for them. If I want to sell them and give them to family, I use Createspace.

If I want to give them to family but not sell them I use Shutterfly. I have a Video on my YouTube Channel on using Shutterfly but a caveat - it does need updating

If I simply want to publish my blog posts as a small booklet I use Blog2Print

Toni said...

I've settled on binders. When I write the couple's story it forces me to organize and look at everything again. That's when I see the holes and the OOPS!, not mine! I save a lot of documents on my computer and never look at them again. I'm printing those off when I do my story and either keep it or discard it off the computer. So often I saved something a long time ago that I questioned but now it makes sense. Or I know it's not mine.
No one in my entire family is interested so I'm printing everything to paper. There might be the remote chance someone will look at it before they throw it in the dumpster whereas a file on my computer or cloud storage is never going to be discovered.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Toni, I agree about digital files. I also know my kids are never going to go through my filing cabinets! I still haven't gone through mother's and she died several years ago.

I am sold on books or binders but I use filing cabinets out of necessity

Rita A. said...

I like your book idea. I'm currently going through the boxes of documents and copies that have been mixed up for varios reasons. I realized with one daughter and two grandsons there isn't much chance of all this being kept. She doesn't have room and who knows what their futures hold. So I'm biting the bullet and making sure the info is in the computer I'm throwing the copies out. I'm only keeping a very few. I don't know what will happen to even this much. It is very hard.

Martin said...

A most interesting article. I am struggling to keep oranized too. I have included your article in my Friday Finds at

Teresa said...

I am mostly digital now, but do have a filing box for my main lines for the basic paper print-offs, and separate archival boxes for the important original papers. My digital files need reorganizing - my project for this year!

Anonymous said...

Linda Haas Davenport says ... As someone who is old enough to have started researching my family's history before the internet and home computers I can say digital has a lot of draw backs. I have old floppies (of all kinds and sizes as computers changed)and zip drives that can no longer be read. And, although I did transfer some data as things changed I didn't do everything. I also know way too many people who have lost what they stored in the cloud. I do have tons of digital records on my computer, but anything that I truly want to save I print.

Unknown said...

I have been researching for over 30+ years, before internet and digital, and I use binders. I have one wall of shelves in my small office and store them there. I use a modified AFN numbering systems that works for me. AFN #1 is me; AFN 2 is father; AFN #3 is mother, etc. As I go back to say AFN #4 (father's family) I list my grandfather, then AFN #4.1 his oldest child, then AFN #4.2, etc. I also insert a label on end each binder, using surname at top and listing family below and AFN #. As my AFN #;s increase, I use AFN #4.2.1; 4.2.2, etc. (children of #4.2) I use plastic sheet protectors for original documents. I ALSO print out family sheets. My experience over the years is that technology becomes obsolete and CD's, genealogy programs go away or become corrupted and I've had to re enter all family data!! This system has worked for me for about 20 years; and I know back up family files in a 2 back up system. I feel more eyes are going to be around longer than the "latest technology. I don't want to lose the hours of research involved to be lost and I don't have to recreate a system that works for me as technology changes. Elizabeth Dalton

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Elizabeth I wish I were as organized as you! I'm impressed