Piles of Paper – Part 3

The following article is by my good friend, Bill Dollarhide.

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 42: If you took family group sheets to the last wedding you attended, you are
probably an addicted genealogist.

In the articles, “Piles of Paper – Part 1 & Part 2,” we suggested you take your large piles of paper and dump them into one pile on the floor of your kitchen. We then discussed the three categories of paper that needed to be separated out from the large pile. And, after removing the Compiled Sheets and Research Aids, we were left with a still large pile of paper, but just for the category of Notes and Documents. To start organizing this category, we suggested that a “Surname Oriented” system would be superior to a “Family Oriented” system, because the Notes and Documents are inhabited by three types of people (Ancestors, Collaterals, and Suspicious). But, before organizing these papers, we will propose some basic rules to follow hereafter in collecting any Notes and Documents:

Rules for Saving Notes and Documents
Let’s forget that you still have this incredibly large pile of notes and documents sitting in the middle of your kitchen. Instead, let’s assume that you are starting your genealogical research tomorrow. Everything is new. We will now start fresh. Under these conditions, I can give you some really good rules to follow and your genealogical collection will be the envy of every other genealogist you know because you will be able to find every event record for every person you have ever collected, every time, guaranteed. Here are my four rules:

1. Control the sheet size
2. Separate sheets by surname
3. Separate surname sheets by the place of origin
4. Give every sheet a page number

Rule 1: Control the Sheet Size
As students we learned how to prepare for a written essay in school. We were taught to use 3 x 5″ index cards, noting such things as the author’s name, publisher, date of publication, etc., followed by a brief quote or two from the source we had found in the library. This method worked well because the cards could be sorted easily and provided a bibliography once the report had been written.

However, genealogists attempting to use this system will quickly discover that they rarely have enough room on the card to write all notes they may want to capture. Not only that, genealogists are fond of copying whole pages of text from books, not just a few notes here and there. To make matters worse, genealogists receive information from a variety of sources – letters from relatives, documents from vital statistics offices, interview notes, phone notes, or information from other genealogists. The nature of genealogical research does not allow the use of 3″ x 5″ cards effectively, because a separate collection of full-size documents would then be necessary.

We have also been known to go to the library without a note pad, using whatever paper we could beg, borrow, or steal, to write down the latest census data we found. If the little sheet of paper is covered with a larger sheet in the file box at home, the little sheet of paper will probably be in the “lost” category in the near future.

Standardizing the sheet size for taking notes using 8-1/2″ x 11″ paper solves this problem. If every note were taken on this sheet size, the smaller notes can be taped or pasted to standard size sheets to bring them into conformity, and if a researcher follows this simple rule faithfully, the ability to find notes and documents for later analysis will be enhanced immediately.

To make this technique even better, using a pre-printed form to take all notes has several advantages. First, the sheet size will be controlled at the time the note is taken. 3-hole paper saves having to punch holes later, and the sheet has a place to be filed when taken home. (An example of such a form for genealogical note-taking is the “Reference Family Data Sheet,” one of the forms in the book, Managing a Genealogical Project).

Rule 2: Separate Sheets by Surname
Genealogists can separate documents by the surname of the family to which they pertain. In other words, “Surname Books”, which are standard 3-hole notebooks, can be set up to hold the notes and documents which relate to one surname. One book would contain everything that is known about one surname, including those people who are ancestors, collaterals, or suspicious. At this level of collection it is not necessary to separate known ancestors from collaterals or suspicious persons. The important thing is that the person has the right surname and could be important to the project. As the notes are gathered, write the surname at the top of each page and devote an entire page to the notes for that surname or names connected with that surname. If a new surname of interest is encountered while you are in research, start a new sheet for the new surname. This simple separation of notes by surname will allow you to file any sheet of paper logically, and without having to recopy your notes when you get home from the place of research.

Typically, genealogists find themselves sitting in front of a computer screen copying down notes from original records. Even if the genealogist was careful to copy all of the Johnson family records from one county, what happens sometimes is that another family surname pops up – something that was not expected. This happens frequently in the course of collecting genealogical records. The serious mistake is to mix these surnames on the same sheet of paper. If the Brown family is on the same sheet as the Johnson family, even though these two families were not related to each other, the only recourse later may be to use a pair of scissors to get the notes separated by the surname. Therefore, simply starting a new page when another surname is found will separate the surnames at the time the notes are first taken down.

A family record mentioning several different surnames that married into the family could all be saved as part of the main surname. The surname book contains information about the families and individuals important to the project, not necessarily just the known relatives. This is a key element in storing references in this manner. The problem of what to do with non-relatives has been solved: treat them the same as the relatives at this level of collection. If later research reveals that a reference item is not part of the family at all, the sheet can be removed and discarded. But until then, the collection can contain any and all references to any surname of interest to the project.

Now the rules begin to make sense. If the same sheet size is used — 3-hole, 8-1/2″ x 11″ notepaper — and all surnames are separated on different sheets, a system of collecting notes and documents will pay off. With these two rules alone, the note does not need to be stacked on top of a the pile at home — any new sheet can immediately go into a surname book as another page.

Rule 3: Separate Surname Sheets by the Place of Origin
Once the documents have been stored on the same sheet size and placed in the appropriate book for the surname, the next step is to break down the sheets by the place, or origin of the record to be saved. The logic behind this concept needs to be explained.

There are three vital pieces of information every genealogist must know to pursue genealogical evidence: 1) a name, 2) a date, and 3) a place. With these three elements known, a treasure chest of information will be made available for further research. Of these three elements, the place is the one that tells you where to look for further information. The place of the event, such as the birthplace, place of death, place of marriage, place of residence, etc., is what a genealogist must know before a copy of that record can be obtained.

We live in a record-keeping society. The jurisdiction that created the record is the place. That jurisdiction must be known before we can learn anything. If this fact is clear, then the idea of separating source material by the place is a logical step to take. Therefore, the many sheets of notes and documents pertaining to one surname can be further separated by the origin of the records. Experienced genealogists know that once the county of residence has been established, a treasure chest of information awaits in the courthouse, the local library, a funeral home, a cemetery, a local genealogical society, etc., all of which can provide much important information about a family that lived in that locality. That information cannot be found without first knowing where to look.

Separating the sheets by the place is an easy task to control because virtually every single genealogical reference item will have a place attached to it. So, the top of the sheet should first show the surname for the record, followed by some designator for the place of origin. For example, one surname book could contain all the Johnsons in Iowa in one section and Ohio Johnsons in another section. If the Johnson family of interest started out with an immigrant to New Jersey, followed by migrations later to Ohio, then Indiana, then Iowa, etc., these states could be arranged in that particular order — which would tend to put the family reference material in loose chronological order for the time periods they were in a particular state. This method of collecting source material will place records for certain individuals in more than one place section if a person moved from state to state over the course of his life. Don’t worry about this yet — we are going to get all of these place-oriented records back when we create family group sheets — so get the surnames together in one book, then divide the book by the places of the records.

The place designator can be broken down further. If there were many Johnsons in Ohio, it may be worthwhile to separate this section by county. The important thing about this method of organizing notes and documents is that when information about the Johnson family in Ohio is needed, a genealogist knows where to look for what is known about the family in that area. It is also the logical place to file a new piece of information.

Rule 4: Give Every Sheet a Page Number
The fourth rule is to simply give every page in the surname book a number. With the surname notebooks organized in sections for the places divided, each sheet can be given a number that allows for the retrieval and return of sheets to a proper position. A sheet number need only be a consecutive number starting with 1, adding numbers as sheets are accumulated.

A full sheet number might be Johnson/OH/24, meaning the sheet belongs in the Johnson surname book in the Ohio section, and within that section it is page 24. This sheet number is assigned on a “first come – first served” basis, so there is no need to re-arrange sheets later to get 1790 records before 1870 records. Genealogists find and collect records in random order, so they can be filed randomly too. This allows for adding sheets within a section as the records are found.

But, since the references have already been sorted by surname/place, the sheet number is simply a designator to put a sheet back into a known position, and it provides the means of indexing reference sheets later. The page number is a key element in this filing system. If an index is to be prepared in the future, or if a genealogist plans to use a computer, page numbers will be critically important.

Back to the Pile of Paper
Now that we have reviewed the four rules for taking new notes and setting up surname books, what about the mess you still have lying in the middle of your kitchen? Well, you will need the following items before you can get started:

● A good pair of scissors
● A bottle of Elmer’s glue (or some other kind of stick-um)
● Scotch tape
● Irish tape (which doesn’t have to be returned to its owner after you use it).
● A felt marker (for highlighting color, optional)
● A three-hole punch (check the thrift stores for bargains)
● Several paper/cardboard boxes, one for each surname you have
● Several 3-ring binders, at least one for each surname you have (check the thrift stores, any binder with silk-screened graphics can be easily wiped clean with an old T-shirt soaked in lacquer thinner)
● Set of sheet dividers for each binder
● 8-1/2″ x 11″ blank white paper (one ream should do it, to start)
● Knee pads
● A sign that warns your family, “fines are double in work areas”

Start slow. Pick up a piece of paper from the pile. What surname does it relate to? Smith? Write “Smith” at the top of the page. What place does it relate to? Kansas? Write “KS” after Smith. Get a box and mark it “Smith”. Place the first sheet of paper in the Smith box. Now get another sheet of paper from the pile and do the same thing. New Surname? Get another box. Any sheet that is smaller than 8-1/2” x 11” in size should be glued or taped to a blank full-size sheet and labeled with the surname and place of origin.

Along about the third piece of paper, you will probably discover that both Smith and Johnson are mentioned on that one, and if these two names did not marry each other or have some special connection, then you need to use your scissors, and cut the Smith portion apart from the Johnson portion. Now get two blank 8-1/2″ x 11″ sheets of paper. Stick or tape the Johnson note on one sheet and the Smith note on the other. Label the top of each sheet with the surname and place. Put them in a cardboard box for each surname.

You will also discover some sheets early on that do not lend themselves to be cut up. These are the ones that mention several different surnames in the same paragraph. Cutting up these type of sheets won’t work well, so put these to one side so you can take them to the nearest photocopy machine. You will need to make as many copies as there are ancestral surnames mentioned. Remember, we are trying to separate all of our notes and documents by surname — if that means copying a resource more than once, that is what it will take.

A marriage record is an example of two surnames mentioned that properly should go in two different surname books. You could make a copy of the marriage record so one could be filed with the groom’s surname, the other with the bride’s maiden surname . . . or you could simply make a quick note on a new sheet with the names, dates, places, and a cross-reference note that tells a reader that a full marriage document is filed in a different surname book. That cross-reference note is a full size sheet, and could take the place of another marriage document in another surname book.

As you see the sheets building in the boxes, you should begin to see what is happening. You are building surname files, and isn’t it exciting! But even if you are not bubbling with excitement yet, this is what you will need to do to your current notes and documents to adopt this system. If you are willing to do it, you will love what happens when you have them all prepared this way.

Once you have all the sheets of paper off the floor, your pile will not exist anymore. You now have several cardboard boxes with nifty stacks of 8-1/2″ x 11″ paper in them. So, grab the box of your choice (how about Johnson) and get a 3-ring binder that will hold all of them. Too many for one binder? Add more binders as necessary. Next, get someone to clean off the kitchen table. Now, go through the entire Johnson stack and make smaller stacks of the Johnson sheets for each place the Johnsons lived. Sheets that are not already 3-hole punched need to be punched now.

Creating stacks for each place is sort of like correlating pages, and you could possibly involve other members of your family in this exercise. “OK, Don, I want you to collect all of the Johnsons in Iowa in your stack. And, Angie, you have Ohio.” If the family starts fighting over which state they get, promise that when they are done they will all get fed. (Which, of course, is something that none of the family has done together since you first got into genealogy).

If you have sheets that are smaller than 8-1/2″ x 11″ then stick or tape them to a full size sheet and add the surname and place at the top of the page. If you have documents that are larger, you can fold them so they will go into a note book, or you can make or buy a “pocket” sheet. These can be purchased from a K-Mart, Wal-Mart, or perhaps in the school supplies area of a local supermarket. The purchased pocket sheets are pre-punched for 3-holes and have a pocket where an over-sized folded document can be inserted.

If your pile includes original documents you may want to make photocopies of them, which would also allow for reducing the size, if necessary, to fit your notebooks. You can treat original photographs the same way — make copies for the notebooks. The originals should be stored with other documents or photos in an acid-neutral container kept in a dry place.

Once you have gone through one surname and separated by place, each sheet in a surname/place stack can now be numbered. You can arrange these sheets any way you want at this time, but any new sheets will be added at the back and continue the numbering. If the first stack you take on is the Johnson/Iowa stack, start numbering the sheets IA-1, IA-2, IA-3, and so on. Do the same for each stack of sheets for each place you have separated. When this is done you can place all of the sheets in a 3-ring binder. Use the sheet dividers to separate the sheets by states/places.

Any expression of wild and crazy celebration at this point is perfectly in order. You are permitted to take your shoes off, let your hair down, shout with glee, or hug and kiss any person who happens to be in the room. You are finished with the pile!

In the next article, “Piles of Paper – Part 4,” we will show you how you can use the well-organized notes and documents file to create family group sheets that list every source you ever found for a family.

Further reading:
Managing a Genealogical Project, a book by William Dollarhide.
– “Piles of Paper-Part 1,” an article by William Dollarhide.
– “Piles of Paper-Part 2,” an article by William Dollarhide.
A Genealogist’s InstaGuide: Dollarhide’s Rules and Daffern’s Laws.

5 thoughts on “Piles of Paper – Part 3”

  1. Hi William,

    Regarding your marriage record example, I understand why that document should be filed within the surname books of both parties involved. My question is then, do all future records created by that bride under her married name ONLY get filed under her married surname? Or should they be cross indexed as well?
    Thank you for sharing this great system with us! I’m already eagerly awaiting your next post! 🙂


  2. Jackie, in my own collection, I rarely make copies of original documents for a married woman in the surname book of her maiden name — instead, I make a cross-reference note that tells where the documents are filed, usually in the surname book of the husband’s name (and usually her married name). But, the rule is not hard or fast, because you may wish to file all documents with her maiden name before or after her marriage. For example, in those cases where a woman married more than once, filing all of the doucments in her maiden name book may be more logical, then copies or references to the documents may be in more than one husband’s surname book. Also, any modern marriage where a woman keeps her maiden name after marriage, I file all records with the surname book of her chosen surname, and add a cross-reference note in her husband’s surname book. -bill$hide

  3. So you might have a binder for each of the surnames of your ancestors, and collateral relatives with different surnames go in the binder for the surname of the ancestor they have in common with you? And documents associated with the “FANs” (friends, associates, neighbors) who are connected to one of your ancestors go into the binder for that ancestor’s surname?

  4. Emily, keeping collateral relatives with the main surname is OK until you start working a collateral line for several generations — in that case you might start a surname book for the main collateral surname. The same is true for the FANs, who are usually limited to the same generation as your ancestors. In any case where you have to follow a different/collateral surname down several generations, then make a separate surname book to hold all of the notes and documents. In my article, “Who has the Family Bible?” I described a search for my great-grandfather’s family bible by tracing all of his descendants for several generations. The Bible was finally located with a Keener family of today, and in doing the work, I made a Keener surname book to hold over 300 pages of notes and documents. -bill$hide

  5. Thank you so much for the explanation! Now that part 4 is out, it’s time to for me to get organized. 🙂

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