Today on this chilly Saturday morning I thought I would share how I organize my genealogical research in hopes of providing insight and ideas to anyone interested in the subject.
For my genealogical research, I have one main 4-drawer filing cabinet. This filing cabinet was one that my grandfather used and had in his office until he died in the early 90s. It’s no ordinary flimsy filing cabinet like the sorts they make today. This thing is built to last. It’s extremely tough, weighs more than a volkswagon, has the sorts of doors that automatically lock in a shut position, etc. Yes, it’s serious, just like Grandpa.
The top shelf has mostly office supplies in it. I’ll use this drawer to expand my holding of organized records. The second drawer has mainly what I consider personal important papers. These include things like my own birth certificate and other things of that nature that I have yet to put into any other organized form other than their prominent place in my filing cabinet. They’re stored sort of like what you might find in a vertical file, except, well, they’re horizontal. More of a pile, really, at the moment, but enclosed and contained nicely by the second drawer of the filing cabinet.
The third drawer contains all my oldest files and papers organized in file folders by surname. I have a very sophisticated method for storing information that pertains to more than one family: I put the information in a file folder for the surname to which it primarily pertains, then I use a complicated system of “remembering” which other families the information might pertain to. When I come to one of those families for which I have remembered information, I use my “remembering” system to guide me back to the information labeled under the primary surname of the information.
Within each surname I maintain a very flexible system for ordering my surname information. This system allows me to order my information in a number of ways depending on how the organization of my information can best facilitate my research on that surname at any given time. For example, if one file contains more currently applicable information, I might put it at the front of the files for that surname. If I know the information I’m looking for is something I’ve had for a really long time, it might be more towards the back of the listing for that surname, unless I had recently added information for that surname and shuffled things around in the process, as often happens. Also, some information I have planned to include in this collection is in three other boxes in various states of readiness for inclusion, but drawer 3 of my filing cabinet is full, and I haven’t wanted to redesign the storage for the other things I have stored in this cabinet. Unfortunately, since these other three boxes are more or less, sort of ready to be included in my highly organized filing system, I sort of keep them in quarantine frmo my other boxes and piles and heaps of records, because I don’t want them to get any bad ideas and fall into any old, bad habits, so I mostly don’t get into them much. This can be a bit problematic, but I make it work. Where was I?
Oh, drawer 4 of my filing cabinet actually is busting full with, I know it sounds a little odd, old genealogical society issues from the Fayette County (Illinois) Genealogical Society. These issues of Fayette Facts weren’t bound too well, and they tend to be fragile as a result. These are really unbelievable gems, as this society has published about 100-120 pages of transcribed records, cemetery listings, local genealogies every single quarter for what will be 40 years next year. Amazing material, really. I even wrote some articles for them in the 1980s. This collection is very important to me, and while perhaps boxing them up might serve the same purpose, unfortunately I don’t have any boxes because most of my other records already are in boxes, and I don’t have any more.
My next category of recordkeeping probably houses the bulk of my records: Boxes. I have many, many stacks of boxed records. Some of the boxes are closed and some are open. The closed boxes usually represent something I feel is more for safe keeping more than immediate reference, although, as always, there is a lot of flexibility built into this system. The boxes that are open tend to have records sorted into what might be called “piles,” or “heaps” for the larger boxes, but these piles and heaps are nicely contained by the box itself, so they don’t mix or get confused with the other materials in my other boxes or the heaps or pile I have on any of the various workspaces I use, unless I actually take the records out of the boxes to look at them.
My last category of storage for records is a little unusual, as it was something I came up with after I ran out of boxes. This is my collection of records in plastic grocery sacks. The last 2 or 3 times I have moved or significantly shifted my records I had already run out of good boxes, as I mentioned above. In these cases, I decided to use plastic grocery sacks, because hey, who doesn’t have those?
My records in plastic grocery sacks are records I was working on or I had out on a workspace at my last two or three places of residence or rooms of the house I was using for genealogy at that time. These tend to be smaller collections of information, obviously, and since these storage methods are considered to be more temporary, I have only used them when I plan to only temporarily move the records then start right back up and work on those same areas, freeing the records from their temporary enclosures that have little other organization. The last couple of times I moved genealogy rooms I didn’t actually add to these collections, so I know anything in plastic paper sacks is probably from a move at least six years ago, probably. All I have to do is remember what I was working on 6 years ago to know what’s in these sacks.
Now we get into my organization system for the things I have on my various workspaces. You might call these piles or heaps. Before I recently moved my genealogy room, I had one group of records on a particularly big workspace that was (how shall I say) structurally unsound. It acted more like a glacier, or on bad days, a mudslide. This hampered my organizational methodologies from working optimally. However, I solved this problem during my last move of my genealogy by using one of the methods above: boxes.
Right now my workspace areas are mostly under control. My piles and heaps aren’t more than about 6 inches high, so I’m feeling pretty good about them. Should the Big Earthquake hit, I don’t feel I would be in personal danger from the piles. The boxes might get me, but boxes move with more predictability than do heaps, so I think I could make it.
One other critical aspect of my system is that of chronological stratification. I use this a lot, so it’s important to mention. This is so simple, it’s easy to miss its genius: The stuff I’ve placed on top is my newest stuff. (This also makes it easy to get to.) The farther you go down into my piles on my workspaces, the longer ago I was working on it! I know! Genius! So all I have to do to find something is go back to the area where I was working on it, then go down in my piles to the right level, and presto! There it is. Sometimes. Obviously, lots of times I walk around or work on things in different places or the phone rings or the dog wants out or someone has something they want em to help with that will only take a couple of minutes that takes all day, and, well, in those cases finding things I was working on can be a challenge.
Well, anyway, this is how I organize my genealogy. If any of these methods can help you, please feel free to use them. However, I cannot be held responsible for any injury, whether physical or mental, of the use of these methods. Please use them at your own risk.