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lot of paperwork, didn't have time to revisit all of it, and was fearful that things were misfiled, or that notes were out of date.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.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for reading, Michelle!

    2. Your welcome! I know the feeling. I have boxes of old photographs in my closet in additional to documents. Over the last few years I have been gradually working to digitize and share them. We are fortunate to have so many photographs but it can certainly be overwhelming at times!

  2. Great job Erin, thanks for sharing the process and the photos. Very inspiring.

    1. Thank you, Diane! I'm so glad you found the post inspiring.

  3. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing your process. I am in the middle of my own process similar to this, only I chose to start with the photos. The paper files are yet to come (and may be a ways off since the photo collections I have inherited are so large!)
    Great to find your blog. I will be following along.

    Melissa Finlay


    1. Thank you, Melissa! Yes, it's the photos that really take time. Getting them properly organized and archived is a big project. Good luck!

  4. Very inspiring and you make a good case for digitizing files. I tend to be a paper person but am now rethinking that and had not thought about using my dropbox like you have. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Robin! I find Dropbox to be a really useful tool. Not only are my files secure there, but I can access all my information from my phone or laptop, no matter where I am.

  5. Thanks for the post. I have been procrastinating doing this project for quite a while. I made the first step when I purchased a 4 drawer file cabinet at a yard sale last month. Now on to organization.

    1. Thanks for reading, Claudia! The first step is the biggest one. I hope your organization process goes smoothly.

  6. I enjoyed reading about how you organized your Grandmother's papers! So glad she had someone in the family who was interested....

    1. Thank you, Laura! Yes, it was fortunate that my grandmother and I had each other. She had someone to leave her work with, and I got to hear all of her amazing stories. I know it's hard for a lot of people to find that person in the next generation who wants to take ownership of the family history.

  7. Thank you so much for your inspiration and process of how to deal with boxes of files that I inherited from my Aunt and my subsequent accumulation! I started doing basically the same as you but gave-up. I like your idea of putting it on the floor so I can't ignore it, but my cat may have a field day with all the papers ;)Thanks again!

    1. My cats were definitely very interested in the papers at first, but eventually left them alone. Putting everything on the floor was a huge motivator for me, and made me keep at the project instead of abandoning it halfway through. I hope it works for you, too!

  8. You are a rock star!! This reminds me of an acronym I heard years ago. SPACE - Sort, Purge, Assign a spot, Container-ize, Equalize (keep up with organizing as you go). It also inspires me to go work on my pile!