Trying to keep your genealogy research organized is a monumental task all on its own. There are so many documents that interweave with each other that there’s no good one way to categorize them. I am constantly changing and tweaking the way in which I keep my research.
Soft or Hard Documents
In today’s day and age, we genealogists are faced with a new dilemma that didn’t exist until about 20 years ago: do I keep all my records in digital format or as hard copies? I find the best answer to this question is: both. It may be more work and tedious to keep these two separate collections synchronized and up to date, but in doing so, you will save yourself heart-ache and stress in the future.
Digital copies are great for ease of access and the ability to zoom in to read hard-to-determine text or details. Not only do I keep copies of documents saved to my Ancestry.com tree, I also save them to my hard drive as well as an external hard drive. With all the time and effort spent locating this research, you want to make sure you won’t lose it in an instant, from a hard drive crashing or a server going down.
When I save documents and photos to my computer, I make sure to rename the file so it fits my personal filing system and all files follow the same format. This makes it easier for me to find something quickly. All my files are named as follows: [year] [document type (census, death certificate, draft card, etc.] – [first, maiden, and last name of subject (if more than one, I choose the direct ancestor or the head of house)]. So for example, it would look like this: 1900 Census – Bob Smith. I like to keep my records chronological and all in one folder. I have been tempted to separate the files into multiple folders and sub-folders, but this way I can easily use the search function to find one, or multiple files at one time.
I also try to print out hard copies of all my research documents. The reasons for this being, again, in case of computer failure or you are not able to have access to one. I will admit, though, I am woefully behind on keeping up with printing everything out. It is a tedious task.
How to organize hard-copy research
My method of organizing my hard copy research is very simple: multiple 3-ring binders. Right now, I have 3 binders, but they all started out as one. I have a binder purely for printed out research, divided into document types with page separators, and within those, organized chronologically and then alphabetically by last name. The second binder contains a visual diagram of my family tree, my family sheets, notes, to-do list, various spreadsheets (including my cemetery index), and an index of every person in my tree. The final binder will be for photographs. It is 3-ring photo album with those sticky pages and a clear film you lift up. As I am sure you will already know, most old photographs do not fall into the 3”x5” or 4”x6” category and therefore cannot be easily put into traditional photo albums. I have not started this binder yet, so I can’t comment on how I will organize it. I will probably try my best to do it as I have done on my computer: by decade, and within each decade, a separate folder for my maternal side and paternal side of the family. (And a side note on organizing photographs on your computer – make sure you document who everyone is somewhere in the file (I do it right in the file name) and the year or decade. You do not want this information to become separated from the photo).
I have tried a few different ways of keeping accurate and detailed notes for each person (not online, i.e. Ancestry) but in the end, decided to create my own template to suit my needs. It is simply a Microsoft Word document, with various fields already in place that just need filling out. One page is used for a family and is numbered. The main people are the husband and wife, listing all the vital details, and a space for notes. Above each the couple, their parents are listed with a corresponding page number. Underneath the couple, their marriage information is listed along with their residences. Underneath that is their children and basic information (birth and death dates and locations). If the child marries, they get their own page with their spouse and that page number is listed with their name on their parents’ page. If the child does not marry or that information is unknown, no separate page is assigned. Any details will be listed as a footnote. By interconnecting everybody with assigned page numbers (I put these as a superscript), when placed in the binder, a family tree and ancestors can be easily traced.
Below is a link to my template I use. Feel free to download it and use it for yourself.
Family Tree and Index
I also have a printed out, traditional looking family tree pedigree (printed from the Ancestry site). I add corresponding page numbers on here as well. At the end of my binder, I have an index listing for every person. This is an Excel spreadsheet noting their (in order) Maiden/Surname, Married Name (if applicable), First & Middle Name, Birth Year, Birth Location, Death Year, Death Location, Page Number. If there is an unknown in a category, I simply leave it blank. This then, of course, is put in alphabetical order by last name.
I have this spreadsheet because sometimes I try to go to cemeteries in my area to find the graves of my ancestors and it is easier to have this information already gathered. On this Excel spreadsheet, I list all the cemeteries in alphabetical order, including their address. Underneath each cemetery, I list all known burials in my family for that cemetery. Each person has a listing for Last Name and Maiden Name, First Name and Middle Name, Birth Year, Death Year, Plot Section, Plot Family, whether I have a photo of the grave or not, and if it is on findagrave.com or not.
Of course these are just my methods; I tend to have a type-A personality, especially about organizing things, so this may not suit your style. But hopefully there are some ideas here that could be useful for you.