Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Organizing Your Genealogy --- How I Did It and You Can, Too!

Bins and bins of unorganized materials that needed sorting

In my grandmother's last years, she used to say to me often, "I need to get all this stuff organized for you."  By stuff, she meant the family group sheets, handwritten notes, photocopies of book texts and letters from historical societies that she had collected in her genealogical journeys, not to mention the newspapers clippings she'd faithfully saved and the family photos she'd preserved.  It was a lifetime of work, and figuring out how to pass it down really troubled her.  Truthfully, my grandmother was quite organized.  She utilized a file cabinet and a binder system.  She'd just accumulated a lot of paperwork, didn't have time to revisit all of it, and was fearful that things were misfiled, or that notes were out of date.  I promised her I would take care of it.

I'm about the world's most organized person.  Everything in my life has a system.  I keep things neat, and preferably alphabetized.  However, when my grandmother passed away and I inherited all her family history materials, it was overwhelming.  My parents delivered all the files to me in several huge storage bins, and while I've dug through them repeatedly in the past four years, those big bins have remained, taking up space and driving me nuts.  There was so much paperwork to review; so many photos to scan.  Those bins also reminded me that I need to overhaul my own system so that these new files could be incorporated.  It exhausted me before I started.  But then, I finally got sick of looking at the bins, and the guilt of not having honored that promise to my grandmother began to really bother me. I cleared my calendar and got to work.  Here's how I tackled the mess.  I'm sharing this process in the hopes that it will help others who need to get organized.

The big mess

1. Dump Everything Out On The Floor

This was the hard part for a neat freak like me.  I made a big mess, and it remained a big mess for many days.  Stepping over piles of stuff gave me anxiety, but it also pushed me to get the work done. I pulled everything out of the bins, spread it on the floor, and then started the work of sorting it. Nothing was going back into the bins.  The bins were going to be gone from my life forever!

2. Group Like Items

Photos went in one pile.  If they weren't already labeled (my grandmother was so good about this and most everything was labeled), then I looked carefully at the paperwork the photos had been stored with so I could make identifications before moving the photos.  Clippings and personal letters went in another pile.  Then, I simply made piles of miscellaneous paperwork by surname.  Ayre in one stack; Smith in another.  I didn't start reading anything or scanning pages, I just stacked.  Finally, everything from those bins was assigned to a pile.  Then, I brought in my own paper files, which had been stored in my office.  I added those files to the surname stacks.

3. New Organizing Systems

I needed some new equipment to organize the stuff from the bins.  After a quick trip to Staples, I had a larger filing cabinet, plus hanging files and file folders.  If you already have a working filing system in place, you may not need new gear.  I had inherited a lot of additional material and my old, small filing cabinet was not going to do the trick.  I got out the hanging files and labeled each with a surname. Then, I inserted everything from the stacks into a hanging file.  Voila, done!  There were three surnames with too much paperwork to fit into a hanging file, so I set those aside until the next step in the process.

4. Reduce, Scan, Recycle

This is the part that took the longest and was the most challenging.  I left everything out on the table and floor during this process, so that I wouldn't be tempted to just close the file cabinet drawers and not complete it.  For each family surname folder, I sorted through the paperwork and decided what to keep and what to discard. This was my process:

  • One accurate family group sheet per family.
  • Any original documents (birth certificates, marriage licenses, obituaries clipped from newspapers, etc.)
I scanned all original documents using a free scanning app,  Genius Scan, which is much faster than using my flatbed scanner.  I only pulled out the flatbed scanner for photos or decorative certificates, since you really want the best quality with those. Using Genius Scan, I quickly stored the digital files both in the app and to a Dropbox file where I keep my genealogy backups.

  • Duplicates.
  • Print-outs of things I already have in digital format and attached to my online and desktop trees.  This includes some census records and birth/death/marriage records.
There were a lot of duplicates of things in my grandmother's files, like four photocopies of the same obituary and multiple family group sheets with exactly the same information.  I discarded the extras to save space.  I also recycled some photocopies of census records and marriage records that I already had saved in other locations.  

  • Photocopies of texts
I still had more paper than I was going to be able to keep.  After careful evaluation of the materials, I realized I didn't need to keep a hard copy of some papers that could easily be digitized.  I understand that the paper vs. digital issue has passionate advocates on both sides, and everyone works in different ways.  However, for me, I prefer to reference items on my computer rather than pulling out paper files.  So, I scanned and then discarded the paper versions of things like photocopies from manuscripts.  These are items that I would more likely read on my computer, and which took up a lot of space as print-outs.  This might be the hardest step for a lot of people, but I think it's one of the most important.  The more you can digitize and simplify, the easier it will be to review your files, and also to pass your research on to younger relatives when the times comes.

5. Feel Incredibly Victorious

Yes!  It took a long time, but finally I had sorted, reduced and filed all those papers.  Instead of a bunch of stuff tossed in a bin, I now had hanging files organized by surname.  This makes it so much easier to find things.  Now, I have not completely dealt with the photos.  They have gone back into a bin and there is a longer journey ahead for them.  I'm in the process of scanning the photos, ensuring that they are labeled, putting them into sleeves and storing them in archival photo boxes.  I've started this process, but it's going to take a while to complete.

Look, it's all filed!

6. Share

I found some treasures in my Grandma's bins.  There were photos, stories and articles that hadn't seen the light of day in many years.  Why should they now sit in a file cabinet, unappreciated?  I emailed scans to family members. I uploaded them to my family tree on Ancestry.com.  This ensures that these items are safe should my file cabinet be damaged in a disaster, and it also allows other family members to enjoy the information about our ancestors.  In my opinion, your organizing process isn't complete until you send those photos and stories out into the world.

7. Secure

All your information should be backed up in multiple locations, and at least one of those locations should be cloud-based.  My data, and all the scans I've made are on my computer.  They're also stored on two hard drives in my home.  I have backed everything up to Dropbox, so that if there is a disaster and my home devices are destroyed, the files are not lost.  I also love that I can access my Dropbox files from any of my devices at any time.

Organizing is overwhelming.  It's not fun.  It can be done, though!  Clear your schedule, dump everything out on the floor, and commit to putting it away in an organized fashion.  You'll feel a real sense of accomplishment when it's done, and it will make accessing your paperwork much easier. Personally, I'm glad to have taken the first steps to honor that promise to my grandmother.  She cared very much about these materials, and I think she would like seeing them nicely organized in their new home.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Travel Tuesday: A Police Escort Through Sedan, France In Search of Ancestors

Police escort through the city.  It's a genealogy emergency!

Yes, this really happened.

In 2004, I traveled to France with my parents and my maternal grandmother. There were several motivations for this trip, many of which were family history-related. My grandmother's father, George Rutherfurd, had been stationed in France during World War I. He was there when my grandmother was born in California in 1918, half a world away. My grandmother wanted to drive the roads her father drove and see the sights he described to her during her childhood. She also wanted to research our Huguenot ancestors in the last place they lived before fleeing France.

The Cresson and Vuilesme families both sheltered in Sedan during the persecution of the Protestants in France during the 1500s.  The information we have about them is extremely minimal. My grandmother thought she might find some local records in Sedan that would prove helpful. After spending some time in Paris, we traveled to Sedan, which is eastern France near the border with Belgium. In Sedan, we drove to the local library, but despite the best attempts of the librarian, could not turn up anything about our family. The librarian indicated that records that old were no longer held at this facility, and had been centralized elsewhere.

As we left the library, we encountered two local police officers. It was quiet in Sedan, as it was just before the Easter holiday, and the officers took great interest in four Americans wandering around town. We explained what we were doing in Sedan, and their eyes lit up with excitement. They insisted on giving us a police escort to the local cemetery in hopes that we might find the graves of our ancestors. My father tried to demur, but the officers persisted. They told us they loved Americans and wanted to help. "Just call me John Wayne," said one officer. "And I'm Bob Hope!" said the other. They hopped in their patrol car, turned on the sirens, and escorted us through the city at high speeds, while my father attempted to keep up in our rental car. They led us first to one cemetery and then another. It quickly became clear that there were no graves old enough to belong to our ancestors in these cemeteries, but John Wayne and Bob Hope would not give up. We stood in the city's Jewish cemetery with them for some time, while they offered rapid-fire suggestions and asked us about our lives in America. Did we ever meet movie stars? What were the beaches like in California? My grandmother was thoroughly charmed.

While we did not learn anything new about our Huguenot ancestors in Sedan, we had an unforgettable experience. When you travel to research your family, you never know what you're going to find. On that day, we laughed a lot, we saw every part of Sedan, and we met two of the most engaging law enforcement officers in France. We walked the streets our ancestors walked, so many centuries ago, and made memories we will never forget.

The streets of Sedan, France