Staying Organized When Time is Limited, by Juliana Smith

It was a genealogical dream night. I had the house to myself with my husband at martial arts class and my daughter at play practice. And even better–Ancestry had just launched a huge collection of U.S. city directories, including some for New York City and Brooklyn. I made a cup of tea and settled in my office chair for an evening with my ancestors.

I had no sooner pulled up the database when my phone rang. It was a sales call. Thank goodness for caller ID. I ignored it and managed to get off one search, when my greyhound came in nosing me to let her out. I put her coat on, let her out and returned to work. As soon as I sat down, in came the cat. He strutted across my desk several times and I was reminded that I hadn’t given him a pill. I got up again, gave him his medicine, and sat back down. Dang, I had forgotten the dog outside. Up again to let the dog in. I didn’t even get to sit down this time when my daughter called telling me to come get her. Play practice had ended early–and so had my evening with my ancestors.

Interruptions are a fact of life, but if you’re organized, even a few minutes of research time here and there can be productive.

Desk Trays
I have long since resigned myself to the fact that my research time won’t always come to an end on my own terms. So I try to find ways to cut my research off in such a way that I can easily go back and pick up where I left off. One thing that helps me is a tray on my desk that is reserved for family history work that needs to be processed or filed.

Sometimes I’ll come home from a research trip and not have time to file everything right away. Or perhaps I was able to attach a record I found online to my online tree, but didn’t get a chance to enter the information into my genealogical software. Maybe I need to scan a record and save it electronically. Whatever the reason, unfinished business left lying around can quickly lead to problems.

Since I know I’ll probably forget where I left off when I get the chance to return to my research, I keep plastic sleeves and sticky notes so that when I’m interrupted, I can slip it into a sleeve and jot down where I am in terms of processing the information. (I use the plastic sleeves to protect the document and then put the sticky note on the outside of the sleeve to keep from damaging original documents.) Into the tray it goes, and the next time I get a free minute, I go right for that tray and pick up right where I left off.

Get Organized
I’ve also learned the hard way that it’s pretty much impossible to get any research done if it takes you twenty minutes to find what you’re looking for. Take ten minutes each day to go through and clear out that tray and any stray piles you have lying around. Even if you’ve gotten way behind in your filing (been there, done that, got the t-shirt), you can make a big dent in ten minutes.

When I do get too far behind, I add another step. I found a small file tabletop file like this one that is portable. I have folders in it with each surname and when the filing tray gets overwhelming, I can sit and sort papers while I watch TV with the family, or even while I’m waiting in the parking lot for my daughter to get out of school. Then when I get a little more time, I grab a surname file folder and file the documents in it properly in my binder. This way I don’t have to drag out all of my binders at once to get my filing done and I’m not bouncing around between families. 

Electronic Organizing
Don’t overlook electronic organization too. I have a special folder in “My Documents” for Family History. In it, there are folders for locations in which I have research interests and for each surname I’m researching. Within these there are subfolders for each individual. In them I keep all of the electronic records I have for that person, and also any photographs that are available.

To keep my e-mail inbox clean, I also save family history related correspondence to text files and file them in the appropriate folder as well. That way, I don’t have to search in a lot of different places. Did I archive that e-mail yet? Is it filed in a surname folder in Outlook? Or did I leave it in my inbox? 

To-Do List
When I run across a lead that I don’t have time to pursue, because my memory isn’t what it used to be, I make a note of it on my to-do list. To make this as easy as possible, my to-do list is a Word document that I have saved to my desktop for easy access. (To save a document to your desktop in Windows, just click on File, Save As, and when the dialog box pops up, choose Desktop from the icons on the left. Or you can go to My Documents, find the file, right-click on it and Create a Short-cut. Then make the window smaller and just drag the shortcut to your desktop.)

Now when you get some free time, and your tray is empty, if you’re good about recording your to-do tasks, you can open it up and start right away, rather than spending ten minutes wondering where to begin. I use this list a lot when I see databases being posted that I’d like to search, but don’t have time because of work or other obligations.

Use Your Digital or Phone Camera
Ever been in a library and been interrupted by the flickering lights and that “last call” announcement that, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” (OK, maybe most libraries don’t use those exact words, but you know what I mean.)  If you don’t have time to record the source information, pull out your digital camera or camera phone and document the source that way. You can copy book title pages, or even copy a microfilm record with the film box positioned so that the film number is showing.

Or take a picture of the catalog card or online catalog screen. I’ve found this helpful even when it isn’t closing time. Go to the catalog and take pictures of the catalog screen for all the resources you want to check and then when you leave the catalog, retrieving the resources you need is easy because you have the call numbers/film numbers in your phone or camera.

Summing Up
With the holiday season upon us, research time is likely to be a little harder to come by. And with the possibility of family get-togethers, it’s the worst possible time to let our family history slide. Each new discovery can be shared with family members and possibly evoke memories that will aid us down the road. Plus, framed records and family history charts make economical and meaningful gifts for family members. By taking simple steps like these, we can find ways to unwind for a short time with our family history amidst the hustle and bustle of the holidays.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten 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.

16 thoughts on “Staying Organized When Time is Limited, by Juliana Smith

  1. GREAT ARTICLE! As a genealogist always looking for organizational tips – this was a phenomenal article. Once again – great job.

  2. I think you just saved my sanity. I plan on starting on your organization process at once. Been wondering what I was to do
    with all those items on my desk. thank you.

  3. Great inspiration and ideas!! Just in time for preparing genealogy gifts for my family. Thanks

  4. Hi Juliana,
    I have been reseaching my husband’s, and my own family history for around 28 years. I have helped a lot of people with their own research,& done research for others. I have never taught, or held any kind of program, simenar or such. I have given reports or programs at family reunions. I get a little nervous in front of a lot of people. My problem is that I have been ask to have the program for a group of Women (which I foolessly attcepted). Some may be interested in genealogy, but I doubt that all will be. Do you have any suggestions that might help me get though this.
    By-the-way, When I started doing this it was on paper and in notebooks. After many years of that along comes the computer. Would you believe I still do not have everything in my computer. I keep thinking that I will get someone to help me organize all these years of work, but then, I would be afraid to let anyone else touch it. Thanks for listening and thanks for any advice you can offer.

  5. The Desk Top icon for a To-Do list is a great idea for PAF users since the program doesn’t offer a general To-Do screen. I will now prepare this document, type an individual’s name and perhaps their birth-death years for their header, cut the To-Do list from their Notes pages, and paste the list in place in the document. I will do this for each individual in a family I am researching. This approach will organize each of the To-Do notes in one place, provide simple cross-referencing, and will shorten and unclutter the Notes pages for these individuals. I can then simply check a completed research task on a printed copy or on the computer screen and add new research tasks or questions to a list. What a great idea!

  6. Juliana,
    Thankyou, thankyou. I am one of those who really has gotten into a lot of trouble because I have left many times the work that I was doing to do something else and when I returned I either couldn’t remember exactly where I was at or couldn’t find where I was at. Your article is going to be on my desk untill I mend my ways!!!

  7. What a helpful and inspirational article.

    From my experience I have one further suggestion. Don’t think you will remember the notes you added by using different inks, abbreviations, etc. I made that mistake and now I’m not sure about some note sources (census, etc.) Any suggestions on where to file a list of codes?

  8. Re: photos of card catalog–Most libraries have online catalogs and provide a method of saving the bibliographic information, including the call number, and e-mailing it to yourself. This is helpful before going on a research trip, as well as following a trip.

  9. Re: the electronic organizing – I’m sure you backup your work automatically and don’t even think about it, but that would be the last step to list here. Back it up before you leave it! Thanks for all your good articles.

  10. Thank you for such a great article. While I thought I was organised I never thought about having sub folders within my main genealogy folder on my computer. Thanks for the suggestion. I also have main (physical)binders for each family – which of course can be sub divided like on the computer.

    I also have a separate binder to hold maps, directions, etc.

    While studying for my master’s I was told that I couldn’t take photos of certain documents whilst researching in the library. I wonder if that’s true for ancestral documents?

    Again, thanks for some great tips!

  11. Super idea provoking article. Document sequence in folder requires thought.

    I use a print programme called fineprint which has a PDF file creation companion. I print all references images etc to fineprint and when ready save to a PDF file name which includes all relevant surnames and any other info. The programme allows me to reshuffle pages and create bookmarks in PDF file. It saves me money on printing – do a search for fineprint and read blurb!

  12. This comment is for Sharelle, who is nervous about talking to a women’s group about genealogy. Try making it interactive by giving them something to do. Hand out paper and ask them to diagram their ancestors back 4 generations (many can’t). Then ask where those ancestors came from, and what they know about them. The examples they share will help the non-genealogists see why genealogy is so fascinating. Then ask how they found out about their ancestors – usually by family stories. But suppose there are no family stories? That’s where the fun begins.. then you give examples of how you found fascinating facts. By the time you are “lecturing,” they will all be your support group. Have fun!

  13. Thanks Juliana, I loved your suggestions. I’m going to
    re-organize my computer files. I have a Family Tree Maker
    data directory of photos and census images, etc., a photoshop
    heritage directory and text files in My Documents. Then there’s my email! No wonder I’m not sure what records I have on which ancesters. I also forget that I have a camera in my cell phone. It’s going to be quite a project, but worth all the re-mapping (file linking)that will need to happen.

  14. Thanks for some great ideas…..I can always use ANYTHING that helps me get more organized.

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