Posted by Denise May Levenick on January 26, 2015 in Guest Bloggers, Website

This is a guest post by Denise May Levenick.

Did you turn your calendar to a new year and vow to get your genealogy papers and files organized? January is National Organizing Month, and a great time to review, revamp, and reorganize so you can spend your time looking for ancestors instead of misplaced papers and files. Here is a week’s worth of strategies to help you move forward in conquering the information deluge.

1. Clear Your DesktopCalendar 2015 In The Retro Style, Vintage Background

It can be hard to focus on the task at hand when your computer desktop is cluttered with files and folders. Instead of saving downloads and working projects to the desktop, create a folder for your current research session or project and park working files inside. If you typically download image files of census records and other information found on Ancestry.com, save those files directly to the appropriate folder in your file system or to a Current Research folder on your desktop.

A Current Research folder can also act as a “holding zone” for files you need to enter in your genealogy database, transcribe, or analyze. Periodically, move files to their final location for easy access.

2. Rename Files with Meaningful Filenames

It’s easier to find and use image files when the filenames make sense. Rename files to a standard system, using whatever format and arrangement you prefer. Many researchers adopt a format of Who – When — What – Where. But within this style, there can be many variations. Your files will be easier to sort and use if you maintain a consistent style.

For instance, begin a filename with the surname followed by first name, followed by the date, event, and place:

  • marshburn-robert_1870_birthcert_ma-boston
  • orangewood-maryanne_1920_uscensus_co-denver

Decide if you will use spaces or hyphens and dashes to separate parts of the filename, such as name, date, event; and if you will use upper or lower case, or a combination of the two. My preferences include:

  • short filenames
  • only lower case letters
  • hyphens and dashes between parts of the filename
  • avoiding special characters such as <>/?:;,.{}!@#$%^&*().

You may prefer to use all upper case for surnames or more descriptive names, but aim for consistency in whatever style you use.

3. Create a Filenaming Cheat Sheet

If you work on your family history research sporadically, it can be hard to remember a specific filenaming system. Decide on a style you prefer, and create a custom Filenaming Cheat Sheet for easy reference. Type a few examples of typical filenames, print a few copies, and place one next to your computer and another with your travelling research materials. It’s a simple, yet helpful aid to keep your genealogy files and folders easy to find and use.

4. Organize the Paper Piles

Most genealogists aren’t quite ready to go completely paperless, yet we need a way to organize and access both paper and digital files. Manila file folders and three-ring-binders are traditional choices for storing paper files, organized by surname, family line, source type, locality, or another grouping. Files might also be arranged by ahnentafel number or an individual or family number assigned by a genealogy database program. Sometimes it’s helpful to use different organizing systems for different projects, such as binders for current work and file folders for loose papers yet to be analyzed and entered in a database.

One popular paper filing system adds color coding to help visually organize files. First developed by genealogist Mary E.V. Hill and known as The FamilyRoots Organizer Color-Coding System, this system has been widely copied and adopted by many family historians. Mary’s method uses colored file folders in a Family File Box to organize each family line. Each of your grandparents uses a different color so it’s easy to see where papers belong:

  • blue
  • green
  • red
  • yellow

The system is explained at Mary’s website, where you can also find information about her webinar and how to add matching color to your genealogy database.

If your current system isn’t working, try to determine where it’s broken and how to make it better. Maybe you need a paper Inbox on your desk to corral loose printouts and a timer at the end of the day as a reminder to file papers before you turn out the light. Try not to get distracted by the quest for the “perfect” genealogy filing system; instead, find a good fit for your workstyle and adapt the system to work for you.

5. Find an Organizing Buddy or Group

The Internet is a great place to find new ideas and connect with like-minded people. Whether you want to reorganize your paper files, de-clutter your hard drive, or master information overload, join other genealogists sharing ideas and successes. Discover family history groups on Pinterest, Google+, and Facebook, and become a regular reader of your favorite genealogy blogs.

Each December I meet up with a blogging buddy to review the past year and set new goals for the coming months. We talk about new ideas, commit our goals to paper, and check in periodically to cajole and encourage each other. So far it’s worked to push us toward more writing, researching, and organizing.

Social media sites like Facebook and Google+ boast active genealogy communities where it’s easy to interact with other family historians who might also struggle with getting, and staying, organized. If you’re new to these services, follow along (or “lurk”) for a while to learn the etiquette; then join in to share your thoughts and ask for ideas.

6. Commit Your Goals to Paper

You don’t have to share your organizing goals if you don’t want to, but you’re more likely to accomplish your objectives if you write them down. I’ve found it helps to keep my goals simple, do-able, and focused. For instance, the past few years I’ve set one goal in each of three areas:

  • writing
  • research
  • organizing

This gives me variety and options, without becoming overwhelming. Throughout the year, I try to set milestone goals toward completing the bigger objective. You may not think of yourself as a “writer,” but all researchers need to compile their work at some point – even if it’s making notes in a database program. Selecting two or three general subjects can help focus your thinking and clarify what you want to accomplish.

7. Make It a Habit

Becoming an organized genealogist takes time and repetition of routine tasks. Cheat sheets, reminders, and encouraging friends can help keep you on track until the day arrives when you don’t even have to think about your genealogy research workflow. The trick is to get started, and keep going.

Denise May Levenick is a family historian and writer with a passion for preserving and sharing family treasures of all kinds. She is the creator of the award-winning genealogy blog, TheFamilyCurator.com and author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes (Family Tree Books, 2012) available at Amazon.com.

Denise May Levenick

Denise May Levenick writes about preserving family photos, documents, and memorabilia at the award-winning blog, The Family Curator (http://thefamilycurator.com/). She is author of "How to Archive Family Keepsakes" and "How to Archive Family Photos" (Family Tree Books), and a contributor to the Ancestry Blog, FamilyTree Magazine, and other genealogy publications. Find more practical ideas for organizing, digitizing, and sharing your photos in "How to Archive Family Photos" (http://thefamilycurator.com/books/).

6 Comments

  1. Brenda Schwall

    I like to collect data on collateral relatives because they often have more information than my direct lines. To make my direct lines easier to follow I write the first name (or the name they used) in all caps.

  2. Rosanna

    I just organized all my photos. Whew! I made a file for each last name first. Then put the corresponding photos in each file. Next came the not so fun part-labeling every picture. Last name, first name, middle name, title if any, relationship to me, and if not direct line I put in parenthesis the direct line connection family name.

  3. James Wilkinson

    One of the problems with Internet access to billions of records is that when a source is found, the finder has two choices: print them or save them to a ‘shoebox.’ Of course, one either ends up with forgotten files in a shoebox or a stash of papers underneath another stash of papers. Good morning, office. Time to get to work!

  4. These are great ideas! I have to agree that collaterals can hold the keys to some big family mysteries. And, I always download those internet files to my own computer so I have permanent access… too many sites seem to disappear.

  5. Barbara Giezentaner

    I begin the file name with the date (yyyy adding mm and dd if available) when filing items by surname. So 30 Jan 2015 becomes 2015-01-30. Using the date starting with the year creates a kind of time line which I find helpful.

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