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Getting Organized


You've dragged all your certificates and documentation sources out. You've made photocopies of everything. You've interviewed at least a few relatives and taken all kinds of notes. You're facing a stack of paper nearing an inch or two thick! Now what?

Your research is just beginning. Believe it or not, you currently have only a small pile of papers. Imagine, if you will, five years from now what that pile of paper is going to look like. You will have searched rows and rows of books, rolls and rolls of microfilm, and stacks and stacks of microfiche and CDs. It's time to organize what you have so that, when you've acquired fifteen inches of paper [and you will!], you'll be set up to deal with it.

The first and foremost thing you want to do in this particular area is to NEVER let your organization get behind! There are few things more disheartening than facing a foot-high stack of unfiled papers, wondering if the birth certificate you desperately need to refer to is buried somewhere in it. Organize yourself and stay that way!

This page will give you and idea of how to do it.


The most common way to establish a filing system is to use file folders and a file cabinet or place everything in 3-ring binders. There are advantages and disadvantages to both:


  • Advantages
    • are lightweight
    • aren't bulky
    • fit neatly into a briefcase
    • can be tucked away so your work area stays neater
  • Disadvantages
    • file folders are paper so contents are not well protected if liquids are spilled on them
    • contents are not secure and can very easily slide out, hence get lost [yes, this does happen]
    • you'll need a file cabinet or plastic milk crates


  • Advantages
    • contents are better protected
    • contents are tightly secured and will not slide out
    • are transportable in 1 to 1-1/2 inch widths
    • you don't need a file cabinet or milk crates, just a hole-punch
  • Disadvantages
    • The 1 to 1-1/2 width binders will soon grow into 3-inch widths
    • 3-inch width binders full of paper are bulky, heavy and not easily carried in brief cases
    • they're more expensive than file folders

If this confuses you, consider this: you won't be researching for just a day, a week or a month. You'll be researching for YEARS! So you want to plan far ahead. Know this: you WILL be acquiring many pounds of paper through notes, documents and photocopies. Do you already have a large file cabinet? Do you have room [a large bookcase, perhaps] for many 3-ring binders?

If it helps, I personally use 3-ring binders. Why? Even though they're heavier, they're also more transportable because I know I won't lose any of my notes or documents. In the end, they also hold more than a file folder.


There is no "correct" filing system. Each researcher has his or her own idea of what works best.

As you are contemplating your organizational plan, consider this: your mother wasn't born with her married name. Therefore, if your father is John BROWN and your mom is Jane DOE, you'll be researching Brown and Doe. Now, think about your grandparents. If grandpa Isaac BROWN married grandma Betsy ROSS, you'll also research the surname Ross. You have a second set of grandparents, too. You'll also be researching the surname of that second grandmother... and so it goes for each successive generation until one day you will be researching upwards of 500 surnames.

File folders: plan to use one file folder for EACH surname OR each family group you'll be researching.

3-ring binders: several names can fit into one binder. Separate the surnames OR each family group with dividers.

A book by William Dollarhide, Managing a Genealogical Project, describes several organizational systems.

Plan to file each page of notes, document, photocopy, etc. as you acquire it.


Next: Recording Your Data


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