Family History Spring Cleaning

As I write this, it is the first day of spring, but here in the Midwest, it feels like winter isn’t quite through with us. Normally at the first sign of spring, I would be cleaning out my garden. Mother Nature isn’t going to let me do that (at least not comfortably!), so I’m focusing my initial spring cleaning efforts on my office. Since I often hear from readers looking to organize their family history materials, I thought in the spirit of the season, we’d focus this newsletter on spring cleaning. Today I thought I’d share some ideas to get you started.

Addressing the Piles
First, address the pile. “Hello Pile.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist! I still crack up picturing Art Carney addressing the golf ball similarly in that Honeymooners episode.)

Okay, back to the piles. The hardest part is getting started. When you get a good-sized stack of papers in front of you, it can be a pain to file them one at a time. I do a pre-sort. I have manila folders for each surname and location (with a couple extras for unexpected stuff that’s mixed in) and sort the papers into the folders. Then, you can work on each family individually, rather than bouncing back and forth. Since my family history data is stored in binders, it also means I don’t have to have all my binders spread out across the office, and focusing on the one family is more efficient. I can spend time analyzing what I have, inputting the information into my database, rejoicing over finds, etc.

Can’t Find That Book?
Another area of my office that tends to get disorganized is my library. I’m constantly acquiring new books and as I go along, I’m not always good about where I put them on the shelves. Plus, most of my shelves are nearing capacity. This is a good time to reorganize them. I have a shelf over my desk where my most-used books go, but as I look up at it, I see quite a few that I haven’t used in a long time. While Maps of the Civil War is a neat book, it would certainly be more convenient to have it on one of the back shelves in my office and my thesaurus up there where I can reach it. On the larger bookshelves, I have shelves with different “themes” (e.g., the Brooklyn shelf, where I keep all my books that pertain to Brooklyn; the immigration shelf where I can find all my books on immigration, etc.).

I also have quite a few books that I’ve been meaning to read, but haven’t had time. A few years ago, my niece was raising money for charity by selling colorful homemade bookmarks. As I go through and see books that I’d like to read, I’m flagging them by inserting the bookmark with the tassel hanging over the front. Now when it warms up and I want to grab a book to read on the patio, I can see at a glance, what’s available.

Electronic Housekeeping
My biggest battle seems to be with the dust bunnies. With two dogs and two cats, they multiply with astonishing speed. Before doing any electronic housekeeping, whether it be rearranging electronic files or vanquishing dust bunnies from the back or inside of your computer, create a backup of all your important files and test it to make sure it works.

If you’re having trouble finding documents on your hard drive, maybe it’s time to reorganize. Do you have duplicate or similar folders for the same thing? Try combining them or giving them more specific names. To learn more about electronic organization, just do a search with your favorite search engine for organizing electronic files. This search turned up quite a few articles when I tried it, with a variety of filing structures. Some people prefer filing by document or file type. Explore several and see which one works best for you.

Housekeeping on the Internet
I’ve heard from several people in the past couple of days who have responded to queries posted on message boards, only to have the message bounce. Don’t overlook housekeeping chores when it comes to your queries. To update your email on the message boards, go to and in the top box titled Message Boards click on My Board Profile. Then just update your Post E-mail. If a particular forum doesn’t allow you to update the request or email, try posting a response to that query with your new email. Presumably, if an individual is interested in the post, they’ll look through the string and find your new address within the string.

Be Proactive for Next Spring
If you notice a particular problem area for your office, look for a specialized solution. Are you simply out of space? Maybe some shelves or a closet organizer can help. If your problem is getting papers filed (guilty here!), perhaps a temporary filing system with folders for each surname can be used to temporarily house research papers when life interrupts your research session before you get a chance to complete the process of assessing and entering the data. Take a stroll through your local office supply store and see if they don’t have something that will help you stay organized so that next spring, your genealogical cleaning chores will be a breeze. 

Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for more than seven years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at: [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2006,


13 thoughts on “Family History Spring Cleaning

  1. Juliana about your article on Electronic Housekeeping you say to backup your files and then test to make sure everything is OK. After my computer crashed I found that my backup with all my genealogy on it showed NOTHING.

  2. Juliana, on your article “Electronic Housekeeping” you indicate to back up your files and then test to make sure everything. After my Computer crashed I found my genealogy backup had NOTHING on it. Please explain how to test your backup. Mary Ann

  3. Love this new addition to Bet it won’t be long before this Blog site will be brimming over with news, comments, etc. Sally Thomas

  4. Hopefully my website will be coming soon. I’m in the process of learning how to. My comment or maybe question was how do you sort through your favorites site? I have my research sites listed under a link, but it keeps growing and growing. I’m at an age when I don’t always remember where I saw something so I often use my favorites to keep track, but I have some I don’t often use. I hate to type in web addresses so I prefer the automated linkage. Help!

  5. I still haven’t learned the best way to organize my family printed files. Maybe as I am still gathering information, but I suppose a person may eventually have a holder for each person, one for families that don’t have must info. But what would you suggest, and is this the proper place to ask??? Troas Long, 314 Reed St. Gunnison, Co. 81230 [email protected]

  6. This was a great article I did a couple of yrs ago almost everything yu said inthe article and beleive me it has worked great. Besides cd back up I have everythng on my genealogy on each line on paper and in binders This new paper is GREAT take care

  7. Has anybody else mentioned that portions of the article are in there twice? Don’t know if this is a problem with the web site or ? Phyllis Couch

  8. I changed my email address with, but when I reply to a post on a message board, my old address still is displayed and it doesn’t allow me to change it. I tried the suggestion in today’s article and followed the link included with “Housekeeping on the Internet”. When I clicked on “My Board Profile”, it showed my new, correct email address. So why is my old address still being inserted into my message board posts? Sounds like the tech crew at need to fine tune this.

  9. Juliana, You mentioned a book, “Maps of the Civil War”, in your housekeeping article and that piqued a problem I’ve been unsuccessful at solivng. In the Georgia census of the Civil War era and later, the districts enumerated were often listed as Georgia Military District ????. In trying to isolate where my ancestor lived in a given census, I think having maps of the GMDs would be most beneficial. I have contacted the State of GA Archives, and have found one map of GMDs for Carroll County (my particular interest), but have been unablet to print it in order to overlay the county map of that era. Any suggestions for locating the GMD maps that can easily be printed or ordered would be much appreciated. Thanks for your great newsletter – the new one will be wonderful when we’ve all learned to utilize it fully.
    Dawn Jordan von Weisenstein

  10. Juliana, I am having exactly the same problem as Cathy in #8 above, except with I decided I wanted to post a query using just my first name, after first entering both names to register on the site. Although it has accepted the change, it defaults to the original, apparently storing it as cookies. It is most frustrating, and I don’t know who to contact because I don’t think the technicians know how to deal with it.

  11. The first paragraph dealing with sorting the large pile into smaller piles by family is excellent. I always do this and it makes for a much more eficient use of time.

    Lorelee Sienkowski, January 26, 2006

    My Mentor has sent me a proverb
    Explaining why my desk is a mess –
    It says it’s a sign of a writer
    With thought streams she needs to express.
    I’ve a tower that’s “active and using;”
    I’ve a tower that needs to be filed;
    I’ve a tower that I’m not sure needs keeping –
    Is it trash or is it worthwhile?

    I share this big desk with another
    Who fumes when he sits down to work
    “I can’t find the flat for the towers;
    Please clean it so I’m not berserk !”
    So, I try to sort and to process
    And I try to neaten and clean
    But soon all my best of intentions
    Leads to new piles – and towers that lean.

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