Have I Lost It? 5 Tips to Organize Your Military Research

Talking to myself…..Wait, I had an Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) about a WWII man who was killed in Bari, Italy, when the Germans bombed the harbor. Who was that file about? Where did I stick that file in my computer? Why isn’t it listed in my Excel spreadsheet? Why can’t I find this file?!

Have you ever experienced this during the course of your research on a family or military project? I was preparing to write my article for this month, had a topic picked out, and began a search for the IDPF to use with the article. Guess what? I couldn’t find it.

Now, if we only look at my WWII IDPFs, I have more than what the average family historian has because I have been researching these files for several years for the programs I teach and books I write. I also receive them through client projects. I have several hundred of these files and at one point started an Excel sheet to track each one because each contains something different. Tracking wasn’t consistent though and now I can’t find the file or remember whose file it was.

Whether you are researching one person, all the members of your community who served in the war, or a unit, ask yourself, “How am I organizing these materials so I can find them again easily?” Here are 5 Tips to help you get organized.

Tip 1: Organize Your Digital Files

My personal digital military files are organized by military branch then by unit. I have separate file folders for each. Within each unit folder I have additional folders for records. These are may be broken out by the following. This list does not contain every way I organize files but will give you an idea with which to start organizing yours.

There are also file folders for new files that I have not had time to sort into the appropriate folder.

My client folders, which are similar to an individual researcher’s files are usually broken out differently.

Other folders are added as required for the specific client.

Breaking things out this way helps keep me organized digitally. Important!! Have a back-up plan for your digital materials.

Tip 2: Organize Your Paper Files

Paper files can be organized in a similar fashion using paper folders or binders. I scan every file that comes across my desk. This allows me to have access all the time to my files on my computer or the cloud. I back up my files regularly.

If you choose not to scan and only use the paper copies, consider a digital tracking system so you know where the information is stored offline.

Tip 3: Track the Information and Files

Excel is one way to track your files. Some people prefer to create Word documents or use Evernote or OneNote to track and organize research and materials. Create a system that works best for you.

To track the IDPFs I have, I started an Excel spreadsheet, which as I mentioned I haven’t kept up. In this spreadsheet, I track many details, which may include the following:

Your research may be on one individual rather than many. The same concept can be used. Perhaps instead of all those fields, yours are the major records you examine. A good example of this is for Company Morning Reports. When you receive many of these, creating a table is a good way to track the information and view the service history of your soldier. Your spreadsheet may contain:

Tip 4: Write the Story

Writing the story is, I feel, the most important part of the research and documentation process. Through writing we discover the holes, inconsistencies, questions, and healing that comes from the story. Stories can also be shared with family members or other researchers. Reading about someone’s life or military service is more interesting and more likely to be read by those who do not conduct research, than handing them a bunch of records. Stories grab our hearts and minds.

Tip 5: Share Your Research and Stories

There are many ways we can share our research and stories.

There are many ways to organize materials and share the information. What is discussed here is the tip of the iceberg. For myself, I’ll be slowly working through all my IDPFs and updating my Excel file with details. Then the next time I seek a file for an article, I know where it is.

What other organizational tips do you have? What system works best for you? Please share with our readers. One system and process does not work for everyone.