Organizing Your Genealogy: How I do it

Just this morning I read a Genealogy Tweet that got me thinking about how I organize my Genealogy. The author mentioned putting all their Birth, Deaths and Marriages into a binder in archival sleeves. Yay for archival sleeves, I have been using them for at least 20 years. However, reading that the BMD’s were all in one binder—made me cringe. Been there done that. It really doesn’t matter how you start out organizing your genealogy, I can almost guarantee that you will change it. It’s one thing when everything will fit in one binder….. quite another when you have over 50 binders of genealogy information. I also have a file drawer and a myriad of computer files. This is what works for me and maybe there is something here that you can use for yourself.

If you have are all digital files what I am going to say still holds. Before I go much further I suggest reading my previous blog post on Reformed Genealogists to get the why of this. So the idea is to facilitate not only finding things but writing the stories of our ancestors. If your photos are in boxes in the closet or albums in the dining room and Trees and Family Group Sheets are in one set of binders and then documents, Births Deaths and Marriages are in a file drawer it’s very difficult to get a sense of what you have and what you are missing. It’s also very hard to see patterns this way. What you have is lots of pieces of information but lots of pieces of information do not add up to a story. And the story is all that REALLY matters. Genealogy is not the point. It’s lots of fun but the goal is to resurrect, in a meaningful way, something of the lives of our ancestors.

EXPERIMENT: So here is what I am suggesting, take just one family (Father-Mother and their offspring) collect all the bits you have. This may take you awhile and that’s okay. The idea is to get everything together and unite it in chronological order. (you could do the same in a digital file) Let’s say I am tackling a set of great grandparents Everything I have on them goes in the binder (the size of the binder is determined by how much you have) original certificates, photos etc. in archival sleeves. The rest whatever suits. In some of my binders almost everything is in archival sleeves (I love the heavyweight ones). I usually put a Family Tree chart at the beginning to facilitate where they are in context. Then a Family Group Sheet and sometimes an Individual Research Checklist for each (in this case great grandparent.) Their Birth certificates next and any early life information including photos and school records if you have them. Then their Marriage certificate, census records, Deeds, newspaper articles etc in chronological order, interspersed with photos if you have them. Oh and don’t forget maps! Once all this is assembled you can fill out an Individual Research Checklist to see what you may be missing.

My version of a Individual Research Checklist

Now everything you have about this Family is in one place and it starts to tell its own story even before you do. Pay attention to things like how old were their parents when they were born. Where were they in the birth order. How many times did the family move. How old were they when they wed? Do you know how they met? DId they live in the same town? Had either been previously married? How many children did they have together? What were their occupations on the census? Did you check the Agricultural or Mortality Census? What can you tell from photographs you may have of them? Are their places listed on the photos? Have you done a through search for newspaper articles? Basically how can you bring them back to life? Do you have letters, recipes, receipts? Those maps can come in handy too. And you may want to include one of their migrations if they moved around quite a bit.

For some families you may have only a few pages and for others you may need multiple binders. For all but my closest families (which generally get their own binder) I place them in a SURNAME BINDER, so the FRANKLIN Binder has the first FRANKLINs to appear in my tree: my 2nd great Grandparents William Marsh FRANKLIN & Eliza Jane KIRK; then going back in time they will be followed by William’s parents Josiah FRANKLIN & Harriet PARK and so forth. Then there are the stragglers which for a long time I filed in one binder that grew into five binders–all alphabetically, but I found that to be quite inconvenient. So now I file those in GEOGRAPHIC BINDERS, of which I only have a half dozen. These are families, often way back in New England, that will never warrant their own binder. So I have Binders for places where I have many Ancestors for example Rehoboth, Massachusetts, Stonington, Connecticut or Frederick County, Maryland. The beauty of these geographic Binders is I can put the Pedigree Charts in the Front followed by maps and other contextual information and then the families by surname. I do this alphabetically but you can do whatever suits you. (GEOGRAPHIC BINDERS also very handy when you are planning a visit to a locale where many of your families lived. )

My Binders—not much to look at but functional

Whether you like Binders or not the basic organizational framework can work for for traditional files or electronic ones. What I like about Binders is that you can easily move things around when you get new information adding and subtracting as you go. The come in many sizes from 1/2″ to 4″ (although I usually stick to 1-3″). You can find beautiful heirloom Binders to use if you wish. (Someday maybe I will transform mine…) Binders help protect what you have, accommodate archival sleeves and are easy to flip through and transport. You can also remove pages from Binders for traveling. (Don’t take originals make copies!)

The idea is to put all bits of a family together and to make it easy to find any individual bit—but mostly to facilitate the telling of stories. Even if you never get ’round to telling that particular story whoever inherits your stuff will have a good starting off point. I can guarantee they are going to find the family more interesting when viewed in context and not a bunch of disparate parts. Now, don’t think I have accomplished this completely or that I am organized perfectly. I am not! There are still some photos waiting to be united with their families and there are binders to be put in chronological order (all the parts are there, just need to be sorted). It’s always a work in progress. I have been using this system for about ten years now and I like it very much. There are very few times I can’t find what I am looking for in very short order. Sometimes I get lazy and don’t file things chronologically in the binder. Sometimes I just tuck something in the pocket. Lately I have begun revisiting binders, reorganizing them and purging them of information now proven to be incorrect, redundant or unnecessary. I have letters going back to my beginning days with the Genealogical Helper in the 1970s. I save important bits and place them in the appropriate binder. The rest gets purged so my progeny don’t need to figure out whether it is relevant or not. It’s not a perfect system but it works remarkably well for me and it only took me about 40 years to get here!

Remember genealogists may appreciate all those names dates and places, but our families seldom will. They may take a cursory glance at this or that but if you don’t point out the interesting bits in your telling of their stories—they may be lost forever. A by-product of this kind of organization is it tends to focus you on the stories you want to tell and THAT is the point!

Copyright Kelly Wheaton 2021 All RIghts Reserved

5 Comments on “Organizing Your Genealogy: How I do it”

  1. Thank you for this great article!
    I’ve been filing my family information in binders like you since I started doing genealogy in the ’80’s.
    I’ve come to realize I need to start using a research log after doing research & then discovering I already had the information in my files! I love your Individual Research Checklist. Is there a way, and would you give me permission, to download and copy your research list? It would be much appreciated!
    Thank you!!

  2. Finally, after more than 50 years for me! I have also discovered the binder route. Your article give me the push to move forward. I am a very inconsistent genealogist but I do keep returning to my research.

  3. Pingback: Writing Stories: Writing Begins With a Title | Wheaton Wood

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