Is Your Filing Up-to-Date? by George G. Morgan

Aha! SeminarsI ask this question at every genealogy seminar I present and, without exception, only one or perhaps two people respond that they have filed all the genealogical evidence they have acquired. It’s easy to locate information, enter it into our genealogy databases, and simply set the materials aside to file later. In my case, I maintain two file folders in a file cabinet. One is labeled “Genealogy Data to Be Reviewed and Entered” and that contains the materials to be scrutinized and, if appropriate, added into the database, complete with source citations, of course. The other folder is labeled “Genealogy Materials to Be Filed.” These are the materials already entered into the database. Needless to say, if these files are out of sight, they are easily forgotten.

It is essential to get caught up on your filing and to maintain a regular schedule for doing this task. Otherwise, when you want to locate a source document it can become a frustrating game of “hide and seek.”


Develop an Organizational Scheme

I’ve developed a routine for filing that works for me, and perhaps it will help you as well. I maintain binders for each surname that I am researching. Filed inside are the documentary evidence–documents and photographs–for each individual alphabetically in forename and middle name sequence. Then, within each person’s group, I file the documents in chronological sequence. I then have an almost biographical version of the documentation of his or her life. Every item is filed in a polypropylene sheet protector. Newspaper items have been photocopied onto acid-free paper to avoid contamination by their acidic content of other materials. At the front of each binder, I file copies of family group sheets for the people of that surname who are filed in the binder.

Your organizational scheme may be different. I know people who file materials in folders in a filing cabinet, either by surname or by geographical location or both. Whatever style that works for you is fine, but make sure you are using acid-free, archival safe storage folders, pages, and containers.

Schedule Time to File

It’s often difficult to fit filing into a busy schedule, but there are usually some time periods when you are doing something else and can multi-task by filing at the same time. For me, I find that getting ready to file can be what I call “idiot work.” What I do is take my folder of filing into the living room once a week, along with a box of sheet protectors, a pad of sticky note sheets, and a pencil. I clear off the coffee table, settle down on the floor, and simply start inserting documents and photos into the sheet protectors as I am watching television.

Once I’ve completed the sheathing process, I take the stack and start sorting by surname. After I’ve sorted this way, I take each surname stack and arrange the materials in forename sequence, just as they will be filed in my binders. When I finish the stack, I write the surname on a sticky note and slap it on the top of that surname pile and set it aside. I continue the same process until I finish each stack. I then crisscross the stacks alphabetically by surname.

At this point, I either take the whole stack to my office or I bring out a few surname binders at a time. I interfile the new materials chronologically into the binders. As I do so, I pay attention to what I have added and the documents that both precede and follow each one I am filing. I may even take the time to review an individual’s entire chronological collection of documents to see if the new material(s) may have added some vital new clues to track down. If so, I make notes for follow-up research.

You CAN Do This!

It’s entirely possible that your filing is so far behind that it seems overwhelming. Don’t despair! You really do have power over all that paperwork. First, make sure you’ve decided on a filing scheme. You can then begin with one stack of documents at a time. If you can address filing 25-50 sheets every day or so, you will soon have taken control of the situation and will have a great sense of organizational satisfaction. That will give you the incentive to keep going until the project is done. Once you’re caught up with the backlog, you won’t want to let it get out of control again. Set a time once a week when you watch a television program, even the evening news, to do your filing. A perfect time to concentrate on filing while watching TV is when the commercials come on.

Once your filing is under control, you will quickly and efficiently be able to locate any document at a moment’s notice. What a feeling!

George Has a New Book!
George has written
English Genealogical Research in the Major London Repositories to help researchers who are planning a research trip to England better organize their research time onsite, and to help those researchers working from home to locate the most appropriate repositories to begin their overseas research about British Isles ancestors. The book was published in conjunction with Lulu ( You can learn more about it at:

Visit George’s all-new website at for information about his company, speaking engagements, and presentation topics. You can also listen to George and Drew Smith’s Genealogy Guys podcast at:

10 thoughts on “Is Your Filing Up-to-Date? by George G. Morgan

  1. When I visit a library or make a genealogical trip, I come home, scan the documents, and file them under the family member. (Of course I have more time. I am retired)
    This really came in handy last year when my computer blew up. I could go through my hard copies and be everything was back in my FTM.

  2. That sounds like a good system, but…I have over 400 surnames to search for and if I did what you do I would be Office Depot’s #1 gold-star customer. I file by surname, put connected families into a notebook, and line them up on my bookshelves. To change my so-called system now would take years.

    My major problem is that I collect information (deeds, wills, census data, VR data, etc) much faster than I can transcribe them into my genealogy software. And I have such a backlog…

    I know, I should stop collecting info and do more typing, but that’s not as much fun…I love the hunt, not the followup.

    Cheers — Randy

  3. Pingback: 24-7 Family History Circle » Treasures in Your Own Files, by Juliana Smith

  4. I wonder where you would file married women’ records–under their maiden name, or their husband’s name? Which name would a marriage document name go under?

  5. Julie —
    Traditionally, the woman is filed under her maiden name since her original records (birth, baptism?, etc.) are in that name. I make a copy of the marriage document and file it under both names.

    Remember, this is FUN!

  6. All this information for filing documents is great, but what about all those NOTES written down, pages copied from books that further research on a particular line, etc. In my house, these items pile up faster than ‘documents.’

  7. My system, and am I behind, of course, is to enter each document as a “source” with its “repository” into The Master Genealogist. This is a rather picky and time-consuming process as any library cataloger will confirm. If practical I scan the document and attach it to the “source record”. Then I put it in an acid-free sleeve with its source number gently pencilled into the upper right corner. These sleeves are stored in numerical order in “Source” notebooks. My TMG database, which gets backed up irregularly to cd-rom becomes my catalog to all source materials, and a backup to the backup is also made to another cd to be taken to my office and stored in a briefcase in a corner.

    This works well, but it is very time-consuming, and I am perpetually behind. I am an old librarian and current computer sys-admin who is on-call 7×24. That tends to break your train of thought.


  8. I use notebooks for everything. I have a half inch note book for each repository I visit regularly. I have a to do list in each notebook. For example, for the university library which has a large microfilm collection including state newspapers, census, slave schedules, mortality schedules, civil war records etc., I make a list of obits and other records I can find there. In my Family History Center notebook I list the films I need to order for land and marriage records as well as things to look up on The State Archive notebook (90 miles away but I try to make it once a year) I list what I need in the way of death certificates, school records, and pension applications. And so it goes. When I visit a repository I just pick up the notebook and go. I have a list of the information I need already in the notebook. Besides blank paper for notes I have a couple of pocket pages for storing the copies I make. It works for me.

  9. I use 3-ring binders for all my files. I have a binder for each family group I am researching with tabs for parents and then children in birth order. I also have tabs for possible relations, future research, and miscellaneous notes. Under each person’s tab I file records chronologically, grouping research notes first, transcription next, and copy of record last. So the file for each person looks like: notes #1, transcription #1, record #1, notes #2, transcription #2, record #2, etc. For census records, or other records listing multiple people, I place the original record under the head of household or other main person.

    As you can guess, this leads to multiple binders for people who marry. In the birth family binder, I keep all records prior to marriage. If I don’t have many married family records, I keep them with the birth family until I make a new binder. Then I make copies of the premarriage records and place them in the post marriage binder. That way I can have all the records together of each family group.

    I like June’s idea of having repository research binders for keeping track of future research. I’ll have to try it. Thanks

  10. For filing I purchased 6 file boxes with 3 drawers each giving me 18 drawers. I labeled them from 1st generation to 8th generation (which is myself) and labeled 3 drawers for miscellaneous papers, 3 drawers for old pictures leaving 3 drawers for articles I might have taken off the internet or from magazines. The file boxes fit perfectly on the shelves of my bookcase directly behind by computer desk. Everything is close at hand yet out of site to keep my office neat and clean at all times.

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