The following article was written by my good friend, by William Dollarhide.
Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 44: Genealogy is an addiction with no cure and for which no 12-step program is available.
When people first get interested in their family history they are not fully prepared for what is about to happen to them. Genealogy is an addiction. New genealogists discover that they now have to do this hobby for the rest of their life! The first few weeks of intense genealogical research turns what used to be lovely, well-ordered persons into compulsive, determined zealots with only one thing on their minds – get that genealogy stuff! Husbands go night after night without their dinner, children are left to fend for themselves, and relatives begin answering their phone with, “Oh, it’s you again . . . but I thought I already told you everything I know”.
It is a genealogical fact of life that something strange happens to nice people – they lose control of their lives. Those of you who are just starting out in genealogy and have not learned this yet should stop reading NOW. I would not want to be the one who caused you to spend the rest of your life looking for dead relatives. But, if you are already hooked and have a large collection of paper that is taking over your house – then you should stay with us. I will try to give you some ideas for organizing your genealogical records (otherwise known as “piles of paper”). Those who have become a member of the “paperless society” are excused from reading further. And, if there are any people who still believe that a personal computer will REDUCE the amount of paper you collect – you are also excused.
The Paper Problem
Aside from the irritating experience of discovering that some of your ancestors had no parents (your ancestor just appeared on the planet one day), perhaps the most common problem experienced by genealogists is the stack of paper that begins to collect. As the paper grows, genealogists move gradually from a file tray to a series of file trays; to a file cabinet, then several file cabinets; and for some, a loss of several rooms of their house to the mountain of paper. Getting that first computer did not help a lot, because now you could print out even more paper than you had before.
I once described my genealogy collection as “those piles of paper” and if this description is not completely foreign to you, then you may be interested in how I found a way to organize those piles. My first success with organizing my genealogy mess came after a disaster. Back in 1974, after about two years of doing genealogy, most of my paper files were neatly stacked (in manageable piles) on a drafting table built from saw horses and a flat door. When one of the saw horses collapsed, one end of the table came crashing down and scattered all of my two-years of genealogy all over the room. My experience of picking up the paper from the floor is where I first began developing a method of organizing that mess.
So, if you truly want to get organized too, then I suggest that you start by throwing your entire paper collection into one large pile in the center of a room. With that done, let’s see how you can pick them up, and in what order. But first, let’s identify what is in that pile of paper.
First Step: Turn One Pile into Three Piles
When you first started in genealogy, you could put everything you had in one neat 3-ring binder. It wasn’t long before it was several binders, then file cabinets. . . and you know the rest. When the collection was small, you could have marriage certificates, photos, pedigree charts, family group sheets, notes you had taken, copies from censuses, etc., all together in the same small notebook. In fact, if you dumped the contents of the small notebook into one pile of paper, you would still only have a small pile. Now multiply that small pile by the number of years you have been doing genealogy, and dump the contents of your file cabinets, boxes, etc., into one pile. You would find that the entire pile can be broken down into different categories of paper. So, let’s start by separating the sheets of paper in the large pile into categories. We only need to identify three. Thus, your first step in organizing the one large pile of paper is to turn it into three piles of paper.
Category 1 – Notes and Documents
This category will have the largest number of sheets of paper. It contains the photocopies of pages from books, copies of census extracts, birth certificates, marriage licenses, deeds you have copied, and so on. The paper in this category pertains to all of your families and many different surnames. This is the heart of your genealogical research. This category has the raw research notes, documents, and copies of any source that mentions your ancestors.
The nature of this category has to do with the way we do research on our ancestry. We identify genealogical events for each person who appears on our pedigree charts. Information about an individual person is gathered and recorded first, in the form of notes and documents. Then, a family group sheet and pedigree chart is the way the facts are all put together. Family group sheets and pedigree charts are the genealogical presentation of the family tree. The facts we collect before these forms were prepared represent the genealogical research for the family tree. The facts gained in genealogical research are almost always oriented towards one person, with the collection of facts about that person’s life, or the genealogical events for a single person.
Of course, we want to link people together as married couples, as members of a family, or the blood-line connection of a person to his parents, grandparents, and so on. But remember that all of the presentation work must be preceded by the gathering of documentation. The most important part of genealogical work, therefore, is the research to identify the significant genealogical milestones for individuals. From a collection of these facts, a family can be put together, or a pedigree chart can be extended.
The significant genealogical milestones of a person’s life begin with a birth. A date and place of birth is followed by a date and place of marriage, and ends with a date and place of burial. But in-between these basic vital statistics are a myriad of events in a person’s life. We are talking about recorded events, which includes anything that happened in a person’s life that can be recalled from memory or from written accounts. These include, for example, a baptism, christening, or an event in which a person was recorded in history for some noteworthy deed, good or bad. The day someone entered school is a genealogical event, as is the graduation day. A name of a person mentioned in an obituary as a survivor is a genealogical event, perhaps confirming a date and place where a person lived, as well as a relationship to the deceased. In addition, an event such as a land record showing the residence for a person and the date of the land transaction is a genealogical event. Any written account of a person, however slight, is a genealogical event, and adds valuable knowledge about a person’s life.
All along the time-line of a person’s life are events that confirm that a person lived in a particular place at a particular time. If a chronological listing of all of the events in a person’s life were possible, it would give a biographical account of a person’s day-by-day existence, plus it would identify all of the places a person lived. Such a complete listing is not possible unless someone has kept detailed diary entries every day for an entire lifetime. But many of the recorded events of a person’s life exist, even though they may not be obvious. For example, a record of a person’s school attendance may still exist, or a record of the first piece of property a person owned exists in the form of a recorded deed in a county courthouse. A genealogist’s job is to find these recorded events and extract them using the same techniques a detective uses. But these diligent activities will make this category of paper very large.
This first category could be called your “database”. This is a paper database of facts about your ancestors, and no computer is required – not yet anyway. After separating this category from the others, your goal should be to have every fact you have ever found on your ancestors in one group: the Notes and Documents.
If you have facts in your memory that have never been written down, now is the time to do that. The Notes and Documents category is going to be your complete database of information. And later, we are going to organize it in such a manner that you will be able to find any particular piece of paper in seconds! For now, just get every one of the sheets of paper that belong in the Notes and Documents category separated from the other two categories.
Category 2 — Compiled Sheets
This second category includes any family group sheets, pedigree charts, surname lists, descendancies, or any compiled genealogical information that derives from different sources. Most of these sheets of paper were compiled by you. The information on them came from the notes and documents you have collected. They are different from the Notes and Documents category because they are compiled sheets, not original documents or notes you collect. If you want to organize them, they should be separated from the notes and documents.
Dealing with the paper to be separated into the Compiled Sheets category will not be difficult. You can put family group sheets in one notebook or file folder, for example. The same is possible with pedigree charts and descendancies. But, you cannot organize these types of records very well if they are interfiled with the other categories. After all of these materials are separated from the rest, you may want to organize this category first, because it will probably be the easiest to do. Make file folders or notebooks to separate the various types of sheets in this category, such as family group sheets, pedigree charts, and others. When you are done, take your entire family out to McDonalds to celebrate your incredible achievement. For now, ignore that still very large pile of paper that is in the middle of your kitchen.
Category 3 — Research Aids
This category does not necessarily give names of people, but is important to your research project, because it includes “how to” items, lists of libraries in Ohio (because you have an interest in Ohio research), maps, lists of professional genealogists, societies, clubs, commercial vendors, etc. This category also includes your personal library of books pertaining to genealogical research, and of course, would include articles from GenealogyBlog and other newsletters and magazines.
Items in the Research Aids category are not difficult to organize. You can simply start file folders to collect all of the things that relate to Ohio, and label the file “Ohio.” You will find that the majority of the Research Aids category can be organized by its geographic origin, e.g., libraries in Indiana, lists of genealogists in Ohio, how to do research in South Carolina, and so on. Research books will organize themselves by being placed on a bookshelf. However, if any of your books contain information about your families, you need to copy those pages from the books and include the copies with the Notes and Documents category.
You should be able to organize all of your Research Aids (or call it your “personal library”) in no time at all. These materials seem to sort themselves by place, so to get some quick gratification, get the Research Aids organized along with the second category, Compiled Sheets, and you will be left with just one large pile of paper.
Separate the Notes and Documents
As it turns out, you can not really organize the Notes and Documents category until they are separated from the other two categories — so just leave them in the middle of the room as a neat stack of paper until you have the first two categories done. Before wading into the Notes and Documents, reward yourself with a large hot chocolate sundae for having done such a marvelous job of it so far. It would be advised that before starting on the Notes and Documents that you have at least a one-week break. The next steps get harder.
With category two and three done, you have accomplished a great deal. You will have your compiled sheets in order, and you will have your research library in order. But you still have the first category, Notes and Documents, which is still a very large pile of paper. In this pile are notes and documents on everyone you have collected. You have your paternal side of the family as well as the maternal side of the family in there.
In the next article in this series, “Piles of Paper – Part 2,” we will demonstrate some techniques in organizing the Notes and Documents category — the area with the largest amount of paper. Meanwhile, please cover the pile of paper in your kitchen with plastic wrap to keep the dogs and cats away.
For Further Reading:
- Managing A Genealogical Project, a book by William Dollarhide.
- A Genealogist’s InstaGuide: Dollarhide’s Rules and Daffern’s Laws.