My Genealogical Christmas Wish, by Juliana Smith

Christmas organize.bmpThe other day I was browsing through some of the genealogy blogs on the Web, and I ran across a post on the Carnival of Genealogy. “Blog carnivals” collect posts on a related topic and link to them in one place–kind of like one-stop-shopping for bloggers. The current topic they have posted is “Christmas Wish Lists for Genealogists.” As I scanned through the various posts, I found myself nodding in agreement with some and took solace in posts by folks like me who wish to get caught up with their filing, database entering, and other little tasks that tend to pile up.

That is my one genealogical holiday wish, and it comes at a critical time. With an upcoming birthday in the family and holiday get-togethers on the calendar, this is a dangerous time of year for my family history. To top it off, I’m working on another project with my mom–a project that has had me pulling out documents for various branches of my family tree and just about every reference book I own. All of this clutter and the nice stack of records I pillaged from the recently added U.S. passports database have conspired to turn my office into a war zone.

The danger lies in the temptation to just box up the clutter and stash it in a closet until after the holidays–out of sight from holiday guests and out of mind for me. But that just makes things worse. Plus I need my closet space to stash presents.

The good news is that my fate is in my own hands. I can do the annual “stash it now/regret it later” thing, or I can take a little time and come out of this holiday season a little more organized than I went in. Today I choose the latter!

Identify Problem Areas
Identifying the problem area in my case is easy. It’s that space between the four walls of my office. And the closet is no picnic either!

Seriously though, I’ve identified several problems and have set about remedying them. Sometimes things from real life tend to migrate into “the genealogy zone.” Right now my desk is covered with dog-eared holiday catalogs with gifts that need to be ordered, the usual bills to be paid, items for my project that I am still working with, etc. A couple baskets have been employed to house the holiday catalogs and bills and keep them from ending up mingled with my ancestors.

The project I’m working on is a bit more problematic, but I’ve cleared off the little table behind my desk and that is now reserved exclusively for those materials. I’ve gone through and put away the reference materials I don’t need at the moment, and now there’s actually a space to work.

Temporary Folders
That leaves the filing and database entering. As I mentioned in last week’s column, a find in the passport database led me to explore a bit more of my Grandpa Pyburn’s family and sadly, those pages are now interfiled with examples I used in the article and finds from other family lines. These are all piled up waiting for that free moment to follow through on them.

I do have a system in place to absorb these records on a temporary basis until I have the time to go through and analyze them. I bought a small plastic bin that holds hanging file folders, and I have created folders for my surnames. (It’s the one pictured above and I found it at Staples.) I can quickly sort papers by surname and that way when I get a free minute, I can just grab a folder and process the records a bit at a time.

For those times where I’m plundering a database and have pages with multiple surnames, I have a miscellaneous file too.

This file is also great for to-do notes or a record of places I’ve searched but came out empty-handed. It’s my go-to place when I get some time to myself to work on my family.

Books I’ve Started
As I cleared out some of the more obvious things cluttering my office, I found seven books that I’m currently in some stage of reading. I’m terrible that way. I start a book and a new one catches my eye, so the first one gets dropped while I’m checking out the new one, and then suddenly another book appears on my radar that “I just have to read.” The rest is history. This week we hung a cabinet in the kitchen for all my spices that had formerly been kept in wire baskets. One of the wire baskets has been re-purposed to hold my reading collection. With them all in one place taunting me to come read for a while, I have a feeling I’ll get a lot more reading done.

Those Articles You’ve Been Meaning to Read
With the holidays, it’s sometimes hard to get our normal dose of genealogy reading in, like newsletter or magazine articles. For those in e-mail format, it’s easy to copy and paste them into documents and save them as text files. I have a folder on my hard drive for “Reading Materials” so that when an article of interest comes in that I don’t have time to read, I can file it away and avoid cluttering up my inbox. Magazines have taken up residence in another former spice-jar-holding wire basket.

Schedule a Task a Day
If your office or workspace is small like mine is, it’s easy for clutter to take over. When it does it seems even harder to tackle the project and all to easy to just close the door on it. If you approach it in small pieces, doing a task each day, or working on just one corner at a time, you’ll find that it’s not as bad as you think.

This month I’ll be taking off a few days before and after Christmas. Instead of having nightmares about the piles of stashed papers in the closet, I can sit in my office with peace of mind and spend some enjoyable time with my ancestors.

Share Your Organizational Challenge or Tip
With the amount of data we accumulate searching for our ancestors, organizing can be one of the biggest challenges. Please let us know what challenges you face, or any tips you have in the comments section below.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the
Computers and Technology chapter in
The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

21 thoughts on “My Genealogical Christmas Wish, by Juliana Smith

  1. Thanks for the mention of the Carnival of Genealogy! I think the “get organized” item was indeed the most common one on genealogists’ wish lists. It’s always a trade off… time spent on organizing is time that could have been spent on research (one is definitely more fun than the other 😉 . If we could find a way to get 48 hours out of each day we could have time for both!

    I hope you get your genealogical Christmas wish!

    Merry Christmas!

  2. I am first and foremost a mother of three children (two teenagers, one pre-teen) and second a genealogist. I also have a full time job and a husband I love beyond life.

    My organizational tip list is the same for genealogy as it is for my real life.

    I use Outlook 2007 for my email program. I have created Appointments for each day for what we are going to eat. (They repeat every three weeks-I can tell you what we will eat for dinner on December 1, 2010. LOL). This saves me from having to decide what to cook, which saves me time and stress each day. I also add Appointments for the kids activities, my work schedule. Another repeating Appointment is our Laundry schedule. Each person has a day and Outlook reminds me who needs to bring me that dirty laundry.

    I also have Tasks. Tasks are things like what room to clean that day, when to change the sheets on each bed, when to put up and take down each holiday decorations.. Any household chore that needs to be done becomes a Task. I set them to repeat as often as that particular task needs to be done. Some tasks repeat daily (ten year olds bathtime), some weekly (mop kitchen), some monthly (pay bills), some yearly (put up Christmas decorations).

    Then I have Genealogy tasks. Scan documents, work on website, clean and organize office… They also repeat as needed. I can color code Tasks, so if I see one Genealogy colored mixed in with the House Cleaning colored ones, of course it gets done first. LOL
    The Tasks and Appointments create a To-Do-List and as I do them, I can check them off and watch them disappear from the list. That is very satisfying especially on hectic days where even a small accomplishment goes a long way. And because they repeat, if I don’t get to it today, then I can check them off and they will come back at a later. I keep a few days running task and appointments on my To-Do Bar, so at night I look to see what is on the books for tomorrow and then prepare what I need the night before. The more time I save caring for my family is time I can spend researching.

    I also let Outlook automatically download my RSS feeds so I never miss my favorite Blogs like 24/7 Family History. So when I am at the computer seeing what task to do next, I can always take a break and read a blog post.

    I also have folders where I can move email to store until I can deal with it. By moving an email from my Inbox to say the CEMETERY folder allows me to read it quickly, but deal with it later at my leisure-which we all have very little of this time of year.

    I am sure there are other email programs or Task List programs that will allow a person to do this as well. Outlook is just the one that I use.

    My friends often comment on how organized I am. I am really not. I just work at it really hard, because I know those free moments each day belong totally to me. I can spend them with my ancestors, my husband, my Lord, or in the tub with some bubble bath. But I only get to spend them if I find them. 😉

    Now I have spent the ones I found today, so I am off to check off another task.

  3. My Christmas wish is a genie would show up and just make all my research completely ORGANIZED. Won’t happen! I have done research for almost 10 years and have tried several times to organize it but never got it to where it should be before life interrupted. I’m trying for it AGAIN in 2008. We all know that organizing the stuff isn’t NEARLY as much fun as discovering it!

    Merry Christmas Juliana.
    Merry Christmas everyone!

  4. I just came back from a visit with a cousin who had her mother’s notes on the family from which she wrote her book “Through My Eyes” by Connie Tutt. I came away with a
    REAM, literally, of copy. At least it’s on only one side of my family…times 4 greats, 8 great-great’s, etc.
    Merry Christmas to all at!

  5. I appreciate all the comments about organization because all my life I have left alot to be desired in that area. I am only a couple of years into genealogy and already see the need. So, I plan to take some time to get organized ASAP–any suggestions will be helpful. I am currently upgrading my 6′ x 8′ pooter area by getting another 52″ table and a larger file cabinet. I only been on pooter a few years and don’t really know the ins and outs–Im a very slow learner. Any suggestions to Thanks so much in advance!

  6. I really like the Idea of file folders on each person. This year; I wish I become a better researcher before everyone who may be able to help me passes on.
    By joining; I feel it has help me a lot. I just need to learn how to use the sights and my computer better.
    I do wish that I will be able to find someone in the family line that likes to research the family and we become good friends; so that I can have someone to work with. I hate to do thinks alone. This is my Christmas wish.
    Thank you

  7. Juliana – I just read your Blog for December 9 and wanted to tell you that I have been working for over a year trying to get organized. I use Paper Tiger plus other things that help.
    I also wanted to say how lucky you are to have your Mother to work with you on genealogy. I’m 76 so my Mother is no long here but I sure wish she was.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    Betsy Durkee

  8. Julia,
    A thank you for your weekly column. Monday mornings I look forward to hearing from you and the inspirations you give each of us to continue in our quest for our ancestors. Wish I had clever suggestions for organization but–perhaps someday.
    Keep up the good work.

  9. I use a different color folder for each family line, using the grandparent’s last name. In a traditional family, you’ll have 8 different colors. Bought a nice L-shape desk from Office Max during a sale. Put those colored folders in a hanging folder. Filled up two drawers rather quickly. Saw some wicker baskets at ABC that will take hanging folders. I think I’m going to get a couple of those and transfer misc. research material into those. I’m pretty sure they will fit on the bookcase shelf.
    I too have lots of things wind up on my desk. We’re planning a wedding for next year, plus catalogs for Christmas and birthday shopping, plus work stuff I bring home thinking I’ll make time to do – sometimes yes, sometimes no. I need to clean it up every week but it usually runs into every other week. If it goes longer than that, I start feeling overwhelmed.

  10. I got the (milk crate) type plastic bin & the hanging folders but I place it all in an antique trunk I had(18″ x 36″) and it is right handy to my work area, but also a good conversation piece. The crate sits in the middle so I have room at each end for big envelopes to stand with surnames in bold letters for a easy grab. When I am working on one or two envelopes I can retrive them and returm to the trunk when I am done. It also has plenty of room on the other end for books.

  11. I used colored folders for each generation of a family. Put the main couple and all their children in the same color folder and number the main generations. Worked like a charm

  12. I have double files cabinets next to my computer, so the
    extra paper tends to get filed quicker. I also have binders with 3 hole plastic sheet protectors, then I can pop the printed family history articles in and out fast when I am working on a particular family – each binder has a surname.
    I also keep newsletters in binders with the name on each.
    I find sometimes alot of information comes in at the same
    time, or a new source is issued, that’s when I get piled
    up on my desk. I hope someday that my family history office
    is as organized as a library.

  13. Whew! I thought I was alone! I’ve spent my personal and professional life priding myself on my organizatioanl skills. Then about 10 years ago I was PUSHED into genealogy when we inherited the “dreaded homeplace”, along with the old barn and the attic. It was wall to wall, ceiling to floor, with just a walkway path! But after grumbling,(and a few other words about my husband’s ancestors’ lack of organization!)I realized what we really had stumbled onto. And with the “talks” I’d had with my mother- in-law in her later years,before she and Dad died, I became the family genealogy “expert”. LOL!

    The attic included chests from WWI, never opened until now, box after box of pictures. Of course, with not enough of the pertinent info needed to be of real help. And then when we moved an antique dresser, we found a door into the EAVES! My husband (60y/0) was raised in this house and never knew it was there. WHO is that crabby looking old lady in the antique frame? I became a dectective. I never considered “genealogist.”

    All of this, along with MY aunt’s death, leaving only 1 person of that generation alive, and not so well, I decided to quickly start MY family history too. So, my guest bedroom, with a small walk-in closet, with shelves, has become my office. And my husband liked it so well, he now has moved in too! And he’s like his relatives! It also was my sewing & craft room until he showed up!

    My professional life as a college customized training manager, required that I keep 3-ring binders of all my clients for their traiing need and history and billing needs. So I’ve carried that over into my genealogy work. It might not work for all, but a binder for each family (3″ wide at least to start) works great for me. In it I add section dividers and also empty plastic sleeves to drop in notes/pix/document copies in a hurry. Also, note paper (I use a spiral notebook)so I can just pull the binder and add any notes needed to put down to paper so I don’t forget. It’s helped a hundred times over when I’ve written something down and then went back and found out I was wrong and corrected my notes.

    Of course, I use and other documents from the computer. But I still like my binders as my working organizational way to keep everything at close hand. (Stuffed below my kneehole in my desk!)

    One last item. PICTURES! I’ve tried so hard to organize them by family, then years, and ultimately into albums. Even bought the albums. I got one finished:My childrens weddings all in one. I found out it’s much easier to but the shoebox size acid free boxes and label them by family, then generation or a “from:to years” is much easier. I just make sure they are properly marker and throw in! If I drop over tomorrow, it will be fun for MY kids to have something to do!

    Thanks for the chance to add my ideas, even if it’s long. IS GENEALOGY EVER SHORT???? Janet

  14. Organizing? How do I handle the many spellings of the last names (and often first names)of my German ancestors.
    Then – do I file e.g. census data together by years, by names, by families.
    Suppose a photo shows multiple families. How do I file that?
    As a beginner, I’m overwhelmed.

  15. I love all of these comments! Janet, you should write a novel about your house and experiences – it is fascinating to me.
    I just purchased a beautiful hutch to store about 60 binders of my families. I still need more storage space for many more binders that are on shelves and in closets. I am retiring from school teaching next spring, so I plan to become better organized.

  16. Marion
    You might want to check out CLOOZ,she explains how to organize documents etc. to put in the program. I really like it for organizing.

    Organizing? How do I handle the many spellings of the last names (and often first names)of my German ancestors.
    Then – do I file e.g. census data together by years, by names, by families.
    Suppose a photo shows multiple families. How do I file that?
    As a beginner, I’m overwhelmed.

    Comment by Marion Wohlhieter — 14 December 2007 @ 7:41 pm

  17. Okay…a binder for each family…How ? Father’s line, fine, but what about Grandmother’s family, and Great Grandmother’s line and GGGM’s line ? They all married a Helm or into the lines that married a HelM. One binder, with dividers for Helm ?
    Then one binder for Tarpey (my Mothe’s line), with dividers for Lundy, Stuart, Greaves et al. Then the Helm binder would have dividers for Callahan, Moreland, Elkins and Haines (so far). The reason for this is that I am 80 years young as of 12 October, 2007 and I just found out that my older brother – from whom Ihave been estranged for seveal years (no reasons, now) has passed away, making me the “Senior” Helm of my line. I have been doing this in fits and starts, and we – my late Father and I – were sidetracked by mis-information handed to us by a gentleman doing research on ‘engravers’ of US stamps. So, we quit while my prents were still alive and now I am starting over to gwt it done while I am still sentient, mobile and caring. Any start-up advice will be gladly received and assimilated. (I enjoy reading all the articles in the AW document but before I get any deeper involved, I need to “Organize” what I have so far). Sincerely, RAHelm, LCDR, USN, (1639).

  18. Robert,
    Filing systems vary widely among family historians, and even my own has exceptions, but as a rule, this is how I do it.

    Each direct line ancestor has a binder. There are sections for the spouse and each child. With direct ancestors, I split them off into their own binder when they get married. So basically each binder is a family unit.

    For those that aren’t a direct ancestor, their entire lives are in a section of the binder with their parents, although there are exceptions here. For example, I have a lot of information on my third great grandmother’s Kelly siblings because much of the research on that line was done through them. (She died at age 26 of TB leaving two small children and very few records.) Because the amount of information I gathered on them became cumbersome, I split them off into individual binders to make it easier to find things.

    I’ve found that a binder for each family works well, and I just branch off if I need to. When I first started, I used a binder per surname, but that got crazy fast! A lot of folks use folders instead of binders too, but in an office where piles of paper proliferate, loose papers scare me. 😉 I like that once they’re clicked into the binder, there’s not much chance of them falling out.

    Hope this helps!

  19. I, too, have tried binders AND Folders, and I’m still not sure which is best. Right now I have one family that fills up two file drawers!! I really enjoy working on siblings of my ancestors, because I’ve gotten the most amazing clues and connections that way – so the research material piles up rather quickly. Then, I’m afraid that anyone else would not be able to find people filed with other surnames.
    I keep vowing to stop researching until I have a better system – but of course I get hooked finding just “one more fact”. The primary problem is space – we moved into a very small space, and my shelves and storage is limited. I’ve thought of scanning EVERYTHING, but even that is too overwhelming. If anyone has ideas for a very (very!!) small office that have worked for them, I would love to hear about it!!

  20. Good afternoon Marcell,

    I use the folders & binders; the folders are for miscellaneous papers until I have the proper place for them in the binders.

    I used the numbered tabs for the generations and the colored tabs for each family.

    I too have a small office, I have 2 2-drawer files that sit underneath a piece of counter top that stretches across one wall in my office. The counter top sits on top of my desk and then supported at the other end with L-shaped brackets.

    I also have a bookcase that has all my binders and baskets for miscellaneous items.

    Good luck on getting organized in a small office, it can be done but it is also on on-going process


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