Geneology: Beginning the New Year Organized

Janet Wahlburg

GeneHere it is the New Year, a time of resolutions and good intentions. We are all going to lose weight and organize our closets or maybe not. A great way for family researchers to start out the year is to work on organizing our documents, photos and other items that we have accumulated over time. There is only one rule to organizing your research and that is that if works for you, it is good. We can all find articles or webinars on organization from the simplest to the ultra- complex, but the bottom line is, if you do not use it is no good at all. Having said that I will offer a two-part article that encompasses both the paper and the computer records that we acquire.

As I begin to prepare for the new year, one of the first things that I do is to set up a research schedule for the coming year. I assign each surname a month that I will focus my time looking at that specific surname. As each month comes around, I look at what I have on that family: stacks of paper, cryptic notes, photos, articles, etc. I use Family Tree Maker software, so I also look at the Task list that is available for each surname. This gives me a starting point for the month and allows me to set my goals. However, if you are really buried in documents and paper, you may want to designate January as an overall organization month.

So, as you look through the stacks you have acquired, I am sure that you will find some information on all of the surnames that you are working on. This is the time to start setting up a general filing system using small banker boxes and hanging files. I find that an Alphabetical system works best for me. I start with the family surname and then create sub files within the larger file. For now, as you attempt to get a handle on the accumulated mountain of paper, you can just drop any documents, papers and lists into the correct section of the larger box. They will then be there when you reach the month that was assigned to that surname.

Once you have done the initial sorting you need to set up a more detailed system. I keep a 3-ring binder for each family. To copy my system, you will need 3-ring binders, index sheets, and page protectors. Begin with printing or filling out a Family Tree (usually restricting it to 5 generations), a Family Group Sheet for each generation and a copy of the entire family history as it exists today. Place your Family Tree and the Family History and at least one map of the area that your family comes from in the front of your notebook.

You are now ready to move on to the generational divisions. As I file the information, I start with the furthest back generation. Example, I started with John William my g-g-grandfather and included his family group sheet and any documents that pertain to that generation. Then I moved on to my great grandfather David and then my grandfather James Gordon and so forth. Dividing the family by generations allows me to locate information and documents quickly. It also is easy to see what I do not have and need to search for.

It is now time to tackle the various documents, lists, and odd bits and pieces of paper that you have for this family. Place the documents in the correct generation in the notebook. Now tackle the lists and odd bits and pieces of paper. As you sort through the ratty scraps of paper and lists and before you throw them out, review them carefully adding any needed chores to the correct surname To Do List. I find this last task to be essential as working from one centralized list for each family allows you to focus on what really needs done and reduces the chance of repeating research that was completed some time ago. If you use a legal tablet for each family and tuck it in with the other papers and documents that you have for that family, it will make it easier to locate when you work on that specific surname. This is a skill that I have not mastered. I somehow manage to make random notes on several families all on the same tablet. Then I am doomed to read through all the strange notes that I have made and wonder what I intended to do with that specific information. In January perhaps one of my resolutions will be to practice what I preach.

To read Janet Walberg’s previous genealogy columns or to delve deeper into her writings and insights for searching out and recording your own family’s genealogy, please go to and visit Janet’s own web page.