My Top Five Organizational Problems

by Juliana Smith

One of the biggest challenges faced by family historians is how to keep the growing collection of records, charts, and forms in order. I thought we’d address some of those problems in this week’s newsletter. This is a topic that I feel qualified to discuss, since I have made pretty much every mistake possible in this area at one point or another.

1.) Cut Back the Forest of Family Trees
Over the years, I’ve used a variety of genealogical software programs. I experiment with many of them both for work purposes and for my own family history, and over the years, this has caused some problems. I would export data to program A, work a little, export it to program B, discover I didn’t like program B and go back to A, etc.

Going back and forth a couple of times isn’t particularly bad if you’re careful. However, if you lose track, you end up with multiple databases with varying levels of information. (Been there, done that, took years to fix it.) This can also happen if you have information loaded on both your laptop and your desktop computer or perhaps a PDA.

For these reasons, I learned early on to stick to one program when it comes to entering data. Choose one computer and one program to be the main place you enter your information. If you want, you can export it to another program–perhaps one that has different charts or some other functionality that you like–but remember to be consistent in where you do all your data entry.

The same applies if you were to take your laptop or PDA with your genealogy loaded on it to a library. Use the program on that computer as a reference, but rather than entering the information directly into your database there, put it in an e-mail or save it to a file you can transfer to your “home base” computer and enter it there. It may seem simple enough to say, “Oh, I’ll remember to export this file back to the home software.” However, if you get sidetracked from your research for a time, it’s easy to lose track and you risk losing information.

2.) Note Stages of Processing
When new information is found, there are several steps involved in processing that information. First, I do a little happy dance. Then once I’ve gotten that out of the way, I put the record in an archival plastic sleeve and I do a little analysis ensuring I have the correct individual or family and savor the new tidbits I’ve found. I ask myself, “Where can this lead me? Is there a next step?” Next steps should be noted immediately on a to-do list before they escape my brain.

Then I enter the new data and source information into my family history software (in the “home base” program of course). I also maintain timelines for each family I am researching, using a word processor. Significant information needs to be added to that as well.

Finally, I file the document in a binder for that person/family.
Invariably, before I can get through those steps, life intervenes and the new find is set aside until I can get back to my research. The problem comes in when I haven’t noted where I’ve left off and the paper morphs into a pile of records in a similar state. Now I have a tangled mess and a looming pile that appears more menacing than promising.

I’ve tried several elaborate coding schemes to keep track of the process–color coding with dots, initials, separate files, etc., only to find that the most successful is a simple one. I keep a pad of post-its on my desk and manila folders for each of my grandparents. Finds that don’t make it through all the steps get a post-it note on the plastic sleeve telling me where I left off and stashed into the appropriate folder until I get a few minutes to file. No post-it means nothing was done with it. No more backtracking and trying to figure out where it stands. Ta-da!

3.) Saving Files and E-mails
My mother and I exchange a lot of information via e-mail. She has been researching since the early 70s and we still have many handwritten notes she has gathered over the years that we are slowly but surely transcribing into electronic formats to sort through. Trouble is, for a long time, I kept the e-mails in my e-mail program and my own transcriptions in word processing documents on my hard drive.

The e-mails ended up getting moved to archive folders where they were promptly forgotten, and when going back to assess and analyze my findings, I wasn’t seeing the whole picture. Now I have my electronic files organized by surname and then given name, and the smaller files are given descriptive names (e.g., Millers in 1870 Census, NY, Kings).

E-mails are saved as text files and filed in the same manner. This ensures they won’t disappear into the archives and be forgotten and as an added bonus, the e-mail header that gets saved with it gives the date of the e-mail–which brings me to my next point . . .

4.) Date Everything
We’re all about dates in family history, but too often we focus on the dates in the records and not the dates that we discovered and processed the records. Why is this important? By dating the information you find and dating any added notes when you revisit the record, you create a kind of trail of breadcrumbs that will allow you to retrace your steps. Knowing what information you have and when you got it can help you greatly when a conflict necessitates a closer analysis of your research. What information was available to you when you came to a conclusion? Did you have all the facts when you first searched unsuccessfully for James Miller in the 1870 census? Did you have that address back then, or did you acquire it more recently–an address that perhaps could differentiate your James Miller from the other eight kazillion James Millers?

5) Letting It Go
As family historians, we are programmed to preserve our family history–but sometimes we can take that too far. How many photocopies do we really need of your ancestor’s 1930 census record? Maybe instead of cluttering your files, you could share those extra copies with family members–perhaps a family member who might have information to share with you in exchange for your kindness? Go through and get rid of the papers you don’t need. If you’re not ready for this big step, at least put them in a “papers I don’t need, but am not ready to dispose of just yet” file. (Yes, I have one too.)

Baby Steps
Organization is a constant process. As you grow your family tree, it changes shape and the shape of your filing system may need to be changed with it. Take small steps, and adapt to conquer the problems that arise and you’ll soon find that you’re more organized than you thought.

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Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for more than eight 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 of American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. 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.

23 thoughts on “My Top Five Organizational Problems

  1. Thanks so much for todays post. Your ideas here are really welcome. I love doing the research but as I gather the information I sometimes get lax on keeping track of what I have found so my stacks of stuff keeps growing. Today I feel like I can begin to get the tiger by the tail! Thanks.

  2. I have been researching for 40 years and just recently decides it was time to go through all the boxes of loose papers I have accumulated in a lifetime. Much of what you put in the article I had already done, but one matter I think needs a little more emphasis..
    Years ago, less experienced, I frequently jotted various notes on papers. Now, some 40 years later, I ask myself, was what I had written a fact or a supposition? I overcame this problem some time ago by always preceding with “Sandra’s note” and as I enter it on a computerised document, to put the note in italics, so that I know it is not necessarily a proven fact.
    Thank you for an excellent article.

  3. To me the simplest filing system is the best. I have a folder for all my grandparents, great grandparents, and so on by couples. All are color coded using four colors – paternal grandmother’s line, paternal grandfather’s line, maternal grandmother’s line and maternal grandfather’s line. All documentation that might be needed later is stored in those files. Census records are recorded in my FTM under “notes for” that family, and most are not kept. At a glance in my FTM I can see where I stand on each family line. In my notebook that I take to libraries or archives I keep a running list of “look ups” needed. Also have an 18″ x 30″ foam board family tree that I have printed from my FTM and cut and pasted and attached to the board. Again color coded check marks by each name for (1) birth info (2)death info (3) marriage info lets me know at a glance where I stand on each family line through five or more generations. As is said “organization is the key to success”.
    Barbara Pilgrim Sams

  4. You have hit my nail on its head. One of my biggest problems is how to file email. It takes too much space to just save it to disc. In addition to my own lines, I also do hugh quantities for others and just as soon as I remove it, someone else is looking for the same lines. Help!

  5. I loved yoour insightful information. When I clicked for a printer-ferindly version it printed all the comments. Could you allow a print option with just the article and/or the ability to specifiy which pages to be printed?

    Also, those of us with ‘long, thick New England roots’ may be interested in Historical background information and refences to resources on two critical 18th century topics that impacted our ancestors: the King Philip War and Witchcraft in New England.(most people only have heard of SAlem withcraft and have no idea how pervasive it was through out N.E.!

  6. Such a valuable series of tips. I tend to forget them when working, and now I will have them printed and hanging on my wall in front of my nose. thank you so very much.

  7. I am a computer person so I also scan all documents. That way I can keep copies of all documentations off site incase of a fire. It also makes it very easy to share with others. I can copy records to a CD and mail them to a fellow researcher for a fraction of the cost of mailing paper copies. The scanning software I use lets me change the color of the folders in their filing system and it matches the colors I use for the paper files. I always take my notebook with me so when I go visit family or on a research trip I take copies of all of my documentation with me on four CDs, one for each grandparent’s line.

  8. I am a very disorganiized person. you just gave me a great reminder to rid my files of duplicated partial material.
    Thank you

  9. After many years of looking for the easiest form of organizing my families this is what I used as a final. The numbering I take from the lineage chart with each family as 96ABDE depending on the generation. These charts are filed in a notebook named after the family. On the family chart I print my sources, and information about the ancestor. Behind the family chart I put all the documents and the census records.

  10. If you are storing information in e-mails, text files, word processing documents and other computer files then I suggest you take a look at Copernic Desktop Search (
    Its free and indexes large numbers of file types including e-mails (outlook, outlook express and several other formats), pdf and word processing documents allowibng you to carry out virtually instantaneous searchs on your files. I find it invaluable.

  11. I love all the comments that accompany the article. There are many ideas included there. I also save a lot of the articles that tell me how to organize my files…my problem is I never seem to have time to go back and re-read them and need to organize my organization ideas. I guess I just have to keep working at it. I have many files and someday hope to get them all in some kind of simple order, if that is possible. I am also not extremely computer literate. But, I love genealogy and and have come a long way since I started my search for my family roots. Thanks a million for all your great help.

  12. I enjoy recieving the Ancestry Daily News. However this time I wanted to print “My Top Five Organizational Problems”. When I tryed to print the printable version, it left out # 2. I printed the whole article instead. This is okay, but I really only wanted some of the articles, not the whole thing.

    Thank you for everything, however, this does not help my organizational problem.

    Joan H. Lente

  13. how i smiled when i read that article and how nice to know that i wasnt the only person who had made those mistakes (been there, done that) or who “savoured” new information. above all it just lightened my spirits. thank you

  14. good ideas. some I do and some I don’t. But staying on top of the pile is my bigest job.
    But trying out new ways is good , and I can do that.

  15. Because Avery makes 8-tab dividers, I have come up with the following filing system for 3-ring notebooks. My 8 file tabs are: FTM REPORTS, PHOTOS, CENSUS, DOCUMENTS, FAMILY HISTORY, BOOKS, ONLINE REPORTS, and HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE.

    Each item is placed in sheet protectors, and then filed in the appropriate place. Items are filed in this manner:

    FTM REPORTS: Family Sheets, Trees, Pedigress, etc.
    PHOTOS: People, Homes, Businesses, Vehicles, Headstones, etc.
    CENSUS: United States and State Census Records
    DOCUMENTS: Birth, Death, Wills, Marriage, Divorce, Social Security Index, Land Deeds, War Records, Pensions, SAR/DAR, Obituaries, Cemetery Records, etc.
    FAMILY HISTORY: Oral, Written, Newspaper Articles, Letters (this would include emails from relatives providing information = written)
    BOOKS: Published Genealogy Books, County of State History Books, etc.
    ONLINE REPORTS: Non-published sources from Onine Web Sites, RootsWeb,, etc.
    HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE: Religion, Occupation, Location, U.S. History, Maps from Various Time Periods, etc.

    If the notebook becomes too full, add the additional notebook for the surname (give each a volume number) and ‘stretch’ out the 8-tab dividers–example: Vol.1=FTM Reports, Photos, Census, & Documents (these provide the ‘records’ sections); Vol.2=Family History, Books, Online Reports, Historical Knowledge (these provide the ‘history & research’ sections).

    Obviously, within the various sections, there is additional organization, and for me, I have chosen to place the information from ‘oldest to newest’ in a timeline version. So far this is working well. I have only been researching for about 15 months, and have created 67 notebooks!

    Good luck with your digging! 🙂

  16. Thanks for the article. It amazes me how often you describe me when you write. Your articles give me hope that someday I’ll be organized:) Thanks again. Diana

  17. I always love your observations and tips and hints. And since orgainzation seems to be a constant evolution in my genealogy, I always love to read what you have to say about it.

    I have only been a member of for a few months and so I don’t know if anyone has given this tip yet. One thing that I have learned to do is document the address to the website that I found the information on. The easiest way that I do that is to copy/paste the website url into my email program and send an email to myself containing the information I found there and the website address. And since I have had my email program crash before, I always make a hardcopy of the information, or add it to my new FTM program.

    I can’t tell you how much information I have in my family files from years ago when I was a novice that I didn’t document the source and now I’m having to re-find the information so I can ‘prove’ it.

    Thank you for your column. I love reading it 🙂

  18. I want to comment on how I organize my emails. I name the emails by F-“surname” for each of my family surnames where the email directly relates to my family. Those emails I am not sure of are called G-“surname”. F=family G=general You could also use H-“history”, L-“location” or any other subject.
    This allows me to retrieve emails related to specific names or subjects. I am pretty good about doing this, but if I could only get more organized with those stacks of papers I have and get everything entered into my program. I too have had the laptop (when I travel) desktop problem. Good suggestions.

  19. I dearly love organizational hints. I think I am organized but as I look around my “office,” and the piles of notes, I realize that I am not!

    Re: saving e-mails:

    I make a folder with each surname and save the body of each e-mail with a date and the address (copy and paste is a beautiful thing!) as I receive or send it with a line between them.

    I can go back to the folder and search for information on a line (you can use the Edit and Find to speed search for keywords).

    Sometimes going back through a surname e-mail list reminds me of directions to search again since there is ever new information online. I have occasionally recontacted people from a surname list who I once thought unrelated, but now have new connections established.

  20. Thank you for all the organizing tips. I haven’t been recording sources – I have some work to do!
    For those who want to print out portions of articles – right click and copy the section you want, then right click and paste into a word processor document or an email. Then print.

  21. I just want to thank you for taking the time to share. You help a disater in progress. Using your tips I was able to get things in proper order

    Thanks again

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