From Chaos to Calm

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Researching family history is an exciting journey. I feel elated when I find a new piece of information or break down a brick wall. What I don’t feel like is properly filing and citing this new-found information. That’s the boring bit. Or so I thought until I did a major revamp of my organization system. Afterwards, not only did I have a quick and easy way to organize and retrieve my records, but I knew they could be easily shared with other family members.

When I started out with family history research, the original file structure on my computer’s hard drive was based on surname and simply grew as I delved deeper into my research. There was no link between families or strategy on how to deal with records shared between multiple people, e.g. Census records. The information scientist in me was gritting her teeth every time a new record was added and I sensed early on that I was headed for trouble if I wanted to easily retrieve and share information. I was also frustrated with the duplication of work I felt I was doing when it came to synchronizing and sharing information between my various systems: my computer’s hard drive, my online family tree, my genealogy software, my note-taking software and my backup systems.

So I started by sketching out a few ideas based on my experience in information management. Then I researched how other genealogists organize their systems and learned a number of valuable tricks from these seasoned pros. There are many online examples of how to organize your family history on your hard drive or in your note-taking software – a simple Google search on genealogy organization will give you pages of results.

Interestingly, and frustratingly, there are few examples of how to build a workflow that encompasses all of the different software that genealogists use in their research. So I spent a few hours planning out how I would organize and synchronize information between all of my software, then set to work implementing it and tweaking the system as I went until it felt solid.

Now that I have a structure and flow that works for me, I feel the same sort of elation when I can quickly find old records in my system. Adding new information into the structure is easy and gives me great satisfaction every time a record slots in nicely. And I love that my family can also find information.

While there are common ways of managing information, most genealogists build unique systems based on their software and personal workflow preferences. Everyone thinks differently, so it’s natural your organization system will be unique to you, with a few shared core concepts. I’ll post a future article with details on how I organize my records and workflow, but for now, here are some tips to get you started on your family history clean-up:

Determine your objectives

Most family historians will have similar objectives, but there may be differences or varying emphases on certain aspects of your research. For example, is your priority to retrieve as many records as possible or is it to share information with family? Or both? Maybe you’re more interested in digitizing and storing a large number of photographs, in which case, more thought regarding photograph classification would be needed.

These were my objectives when I started out:

  1. Easily find any record pertaining to any family member
    • Ideally find records under 3 seconds.
    • Find records by either searching or browsing.
  2. Backup all files
    • Automatic and regular backup to cloud-based storage.
  3. Share all records (or a subset of records) with current and future family members.
    • Offer flexible options: some people are comfortable getting a GEDCOM file or downloading information from a shared online family tree, but some prefer access to a shared file structure of documents.
  4. Easily add records to the system
    • Avoid duplication of work when adding records to the multiple systems (hard drive, online family trees, genealogy software, note-taking software, backup).
    • Ensure all systems are easily synchronized.

Don’t re-invent the wheel

Look at what other genealogists have done to organize their files. A simple Google search will bring up hundreds of blog posts and articles. Don’t get lost reading through all of them; pick a few and skim them to see if they resonate with your style of research and organization. And if you adopt someone else’s system, be sure to give credit if you talk or write about it.

Be flexible

When you have an idea of how you want to organize your records, start implementing it! As you go, don’t be afraid to make changes to suit your needs. When you have a structure in place, test it out by adding in a new record.

Write down your process and file naming conventions

I use Evernote to store my Research Logs and To Do lists as well as any other notes that pertain to genealogy. I include two notes in there to help me remember how to store and name records in my various systems:

  • Organizing & Synchronizing Records on the Hard Drive, RootsMagic, Evernote, and Cloud-based Backup
  • Evernote for Genealogy – Tips for Organization & Research

Simply writing out my process and naming conventions allowed me to see gaps in the workflow, so that I could adjust accordingly. And if I set aside my research for a while, I can return to it later and easily recall how to catalogue documents by referring back to these two notes.

Some starting points

I borrowed heavily from the following genealogists:

The following books may also be helpful to you in your quest to organize:

How to Use Evernote for

By Kerry Scott
Organize Your Genealogy
By Drew Smith
Planning a Future for Your Family’s Past
By Marian Burk Wood

Don’t hesitate to search further for examples of record organization in genealogy.  Comment below to let us know what kind of system you use or if you have any questions.  And stay tuned for another post with details on how I manage mine.


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