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June 22, 2011

Organizing Those Documents and Photos!

Well, I'm at it again. I'm reorganizing my genealogy documents and photographs. It doesn't seem to matter what method I choose, I always end up changing my mind after using a method for a few months.

I deliberate. I analyze. I mull over my organizational options: Binders? File folders? Emphasis on digital rather than paper?

Granted things change. I find more documents, or more photographs come my way. I learn more about a specific family member. So my stack of documents and photos becomes even larger.

Often I change my method of organization of my family files based simply on quantity. The more documents, the more room I need. And for that I like file folders in cabinets.

But lately I've been thinking a lot about who will want all this "stuff" in the future. Even the most interested of my children or grandchildren are not likely to want both of my 3x2' filing cabinets with their 6 large drawers stuffed full of papers.  Or my extra filing cabinets overflowing with the leftovers.

What to do? I don't want digital as my main method of storage and viewing. It's a great backup but doesn't work for me as my number one organizational method.

Binders haven't worked for me  as I research all siblings of my direct ancestors on every generation. That's way too many binders and way too much reading for others.

With all those constraints in mind I sat down to really think this over. What was my main goal? To ensure that my research into my ancestry is passed on. Okay what were my secondary goals? To create a method of storing my research that had some chance of actually being looked at and read by others. Any other goals? To create a way of keeping my documents that I could easily pick up and see fairly easily what I have and what I am missing.

I realized that to meet these goals I had to keep in mind that it is  my direct ancestor lines that will be of the most interest (perhaps the ONLY interest!) to my children or grandchidren. They aren't genealogists. They don't care about siblings. They don't care about doing any research personally. So if I want one of them to become the keeper of the work I've done, I have to pare it down.

Paring it down does not mean I have to discard what I've worked on for the past 30 plus years. But it does mean I have to separate direct ancestors from siblings. It means I need two storage methods and that's when it hit me. I need to keep the "extras", that is the sibling and spousal research that are not direct ancestors in my family tree, in filing cabinets as I've been doing. And I need to start my binder system again.

I need to move my direct ancestors documents, research and photographs and get those into binders.  But I need to be strict with myself and ONLY place material about my direct ancestors in those binders. Binders allows anyone to pick one up, glance through it and keep all relevant documents in one place.

Keeping in mind that I'm creating these binders for non-genealogists, I need to keep it simple. No confusing genealogy reports, just a simple chart showing the direct lineage from me back through the years. Add a family group sheet for each direct ancestor and that's it. Then I add the images for census, church records, vital stats, land records and so on. Whatever I have found for each ancestor goes into the binder for that family surname. That includes my scanned and printed photographs for the family.

I realize I could achieve a much nicer (visually) product by creating a family book for each surname but that's just too time-consuming for my immediate needs. Once I have all my documents and photos in a binder, I can begin work on that. But to do this quickly and efficiently, I've decided on binders.

It's almost a complete circle because at one point several years ago I switched from binders to filing cabinets due to the sheer volume of material I'd collected. In the past I've always organized based on what suited ME and my needs, but not with the future in mind. Now I've reached an age and a stage where that's my utmost concern - passing those genealogy records on.

So for the past week I've been sorting and placing documents into binders. One of the perks is that I'm actually finding copies of certificates that I'd forgotten I have! I do have a tendency to get side-tracked and  to start incorporating extraneous non-direct ancestor items such as my grandmother's brother's original military records. I have to constantly remind myself that I'm not creating the binders just for me, but for future generations.

I'm thinking I might start a second binder for each family surname and make those strictly for documents and photos that pertain to non-direct individuals (siblings on all generations). That allows me to preserve the documents in an orderly way and if one of my children or grandchildren decide they want everything, it is there for them in labelled binders. If they decide they only want the information on our direct ancestors they'll be able to do so easily.


The Lurking Genealogist said...

I have often posted queries to message boards entitled, How much is enough? Never got many responses. My theory is similar to yours. I stopped researching and keeping information on a lot of my collateral lines.

That being said, not only did I want my collection to be usable and interesting for my children and grandchildren, but I wanted it to benefit other researchers, as well. With that in mind, I include the information on collateral lines for one generation.

The reason for this is that sometimes researching collaterals is helpful to others. In particular when using obituaries there are other names mentioned that you may have heard of. To include information on the families of your ancestor's siblings for one generation just gives a more complete picture and may help another researcher.

Something to consider ......

Linda Gartz said...

Wow, Lorine! You're thinking in exactly the same frame of mind I'm in--and have come to a similar conclusion. I recently ordered a bunch of binders from Hollinger to start sorting my archival photos in an orderly manner. I have 25 bankers' boxes of family archives -- photos, letters, diaries documents. My brothers and I made an excel spreadsheet 11 years ago of the overview of what's in each box. The spread sheet is 10 pages. We made a second spread sheet with dates -- every time we found a date, we added it to the spread sheet in chronological order -- along with the source. I'm going to take away more ideas from this post. My final decision for how to deal with all this is to donate it to a local research library where it will be protected for future research. My kids can have access to it at any time without the burden (or possible apathetic carelessness that will cause the research and documents to be lost). This is a very important post. None of us know if our kids will care as much as we do -- and you're protecting your legacy in a logical way. Oh the work ahead of us!

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Oh gosh I hope I didn't mislead anyone! I will NEVER stop researching all siblings on all generations!

But I'm separating my research into a main binder for each family surname for my direct ancestors only AND a second or third or fourth binder for that surname for siblings and collateral lines.

That way my children or grandchildren can take what interests them. Remember they are not genealogists so chances are they will only want the info on direct ancestors.

Yes the rest is important to us avid genealogists but NOT to a descendant with a mild interest only.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Linda - Love your idea of an overview. I have been urging my husband to create one for his MASSEY genealogy. He has conducted a one-name study of all Massey individuals in Ireland and Canada and it's hard for him to keep track of what he has and to whom it pertains

I do plan to create a master list for my own documents -just as you did, in chronological order. I won't tally the photos as I don't think I could realistically complete that job! You sound so much more organized than I am!

I also have some photos and physical items notated that they are to be donated to specific museums.

Nancy said...

You have 25 years' worth more of documents than I have! I'm still using binders but I can see the sense of keeping direct line ancestors in a separate binder with collateral lines in other binders/files. But in my mind there has to be some overlap so that the direct line individual appears (even if only with a family group sheet in the collateral file) with his/her birth family as well as head of family.

And then there are the women. I've been putting their pre-marriage information with their family of birth and their marriage and post-marriage information with their spouses and children. At least most of the time. But that means I have to look in two places - or have two copies of everything in both places.

Oh, the challenge. I do like your idea of a separate direct line binder(s) and will ponder that a little and perhaps make the change.

Thanks for this post and discussion topic.

The Grandmother Here said...

I'm beginning to think that the joy is in the journey. Searching and finding is what I enjoy. To inherit filing cabinets full of documents wouldn't be as much fun as finding the treasures for myself. Do we appreciate that which is presented to us on a silver platter?

Our family trees can be preserved online at public places like and for others to find.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Diana I absolutely agree with you. I would hate to have my genealogy handed to me! The joy for me is in searching and discovery.

But.... my children are not interested except mildly. They like the stories. They take delight in my joy. But do the research? Nope. And that's okay because I've done it and maybe someday one of my grandchildren will take up the torch and carry on where I left off.

Because we're never going to find it all in our lifetimes are we? :-)

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Nancy - yes yes yes. The women! Arrgh. I struggle with that too. I decided this time around to keep women with their birth families until they marry, then with husband's surname binder.

That's okay for documents as I have family group sheets and have highlighted my direct ancestors so the married name can be easily spotted. And it's easy to see what documents go with Before marriage or AFter marriage.

It's the photos that throw a wrinkle for me! Many I can tell - child (before marriage) or mother with child (after marriage) But what about the ones I don't know for sure? And doing it before vs after marriage means that photos of that individual are spread into two binders.

Worse, what if a female ancestor married several times? Arrgh!

I still haven't finalized my thoughts on this. :-)

Tessa Keough said...

Some great ideas - one suggestion I have would be to sit down with one of the "not interested" family members and see if your method for the binder makes sense to him/her.

I have received so many good ideas from family members who want the stories with supporting documents (and I blog about family members this way) rather than the charts and forms we may use. Try to interest a child or your grandchildren. For my part, my nieces and nephews got interested if I had pictures and explained the travel to America (maps are great here) with photos of the churches, villages and farmbooks from the old country. Trying to include the history and what their lives were like and how they were different (especially grandparents' lives) makes it come alive.

You might just find a budding genealogist!

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Tessa - I like your idea of sitting down with my intended recipients and asking them how they might like the material presented.

As for my grandchildren, I'm a huge proponent of brainwashing :-) Been doing it since they were born. Have you seen my blog posts on creating fun activities with children and grandchildren? Check the topics right hand nav bar called GENEALOGY FOR CHILDREN.

Every summer I come up with a new one for my two oldest grandkids and this year my next two eldest got involved too. And yes I'm sure one of them at least will become the next generation genealogist in the family :-)

GeniAus said...

Oh Lorine, My paper files are in binders and a couple of big boxes.I have been ignoring them as I try to get my digital files organised but will have to face them one day. As my children and grandchildren are into technology in a big way I think they will be most interested in having the information presented to them in a digital format. One of my sons just phoned because he had a spare moment - he used it to check on my blog and wanted to tell me he enjoyed my "Not just Ned" post from yesterday. So for my mob digital is the way to go with original docs filed in a simple alphabetical order by name (if they feel a need to look at them) whenever I get around to organising them!

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Geniaus - oh how I wish! My sons are so anti-technology - neither even has a cell phone, they hate them. I mention Skype, they say "Ya, I've heard of that.." I ask them if they use cloud computing, they go "Huh?"

To be fair one son does try things out if I suggest it, the other - not so much :-)

I do think putting the paper files on digital format and then on CD is a great idea that they'd look at but - that's a huge amount of work for me, so maybe in the future I'll get to it (I hope)

I'm loving this discussion and hearing what others do - lots of great ideas to mull over!

Cherie Cayemberg said...

You're putting me to shame...and motivating me to get into my organization. Keep it up!

Joan Miller (Luxegen) said...

Lorine, great post on an important topic. I have a file cabinet full plus boxes and more 'stuff' around. I'm getting more and more organized on the digital end of it but need to get better on the paper end.

As for catching the interest of the next generation - I create giant family tree banners for each major family gathering (reunions, major birthday gatherings). That gets a lot of interest. I also print out blog posts for the gatherings plus share them on facebook (where the cousins and offspring are).

But as you say...they are only interested in direct lines.

Anonymous said...

I am a relatively new researcher of my genealogy (spare time for past 7 or 8 years) and my information fits into 4 very full binders still. Everything is in my genealogy software including source information for every piece of information entered into it. That being said, my binders are organized by families. I have a binder for the family lines of each grandparent. Each binder is subdivided by surname (organized chronologically - most recent generation first working my way back to older generations). Each surname is subdivided by family group. The section for the family group I organized in the following way. First is the family group sheet showing the family (if a parent was married more than once, this is the group sheet for my direct line). Next I have supporting documents for that family group including anything for a child not yet married - if the child is married it goes with their family group sheet. These documents include census enumerations, copies of birth registries, certificates, copies of pictures, etc, again in chronological order. After this I have the family group sheets of the children (my ancestor's siblings) followed by their supporting documents. Then finally I have the family group sheets for the parents other marriages, if any. I am currently very slowly and sporadicly working on scanning copies of all my documents to store on an SD card (more storage space than a CD). That project is going slowly though because I have not yet decided on an organization method for that since multiple documents would be the same for multiple people. Also, however you decide to organize things (paper or electronically), I have learned that organization will always be a work in progress.

Jim Gill said...

I started the add a comment the day you posted this excellent article and I read the numerous thought-provoking comments, but I realized I need to think about it all first. My thoughts finally filled a blog post of my own on Searchin' for Kinfolk -- Thanks for getting my thinking gears in motion.

Robin Wallace said...

I have one small suggestion that has helped me tremendously. When looking at a family group chart, I never could remember which child was in my direct line. I now put each name in direct line in ALL CAPS. I do this with my individual file folders as well. It makes them so easy to spot.
Thanks for all of your wonderful ideas.

Kelly said...

As someone who has just started getting into genealogy I am so appreciating your blog. I am overwhelmed with the idea of how to organize information and how much information to actually go after - so much that I think it's keeping me from enjoying some of this process! I am tech person and I think that digital with printed documents as backups might be the best option. I know that our local library has a massive genealogy department and you can leave your family files to them to keep - which is an intriguing idea for the future. I think that someone needs to come up with a program that helps those researching genealogy organize stuff digitally. Is there any chance that you might be willing to take photographs of your system and share it that way? I'm such a visual person and every post I find about organizing this stuff seems to be missing photographs. It would so help me visualize how ya'll are dealing with the massive amounts of information that can be collected! Thanks again for your blod. :)

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

For Kelly and any other readers looking for my email addy. You can find it on my ABOUT LORINE page at

It is also in my PROFILE for blogger (right hand side bar, click on profile for Genealogy Blogger)

Dana Leeds said...

I'm working on organizing my genealogy and came across this 'old' post of yours. So, I was wondering, did you stick with this method? Is it working for you?

And, thanks for the reminder that we need to think about what will happen to our research when we are gone. So many things to consider!

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Hi Dana

No I have changed to a very different method which I love!

In fact I wrote a small ebook tutorial on it called Organize Your Genealogy in Evernote in 10 Easy Steps

See Lorine's Books