It’s exciting to discover your ancestors and see their names on documents like census records for the first time. With each new census and each new generation you find, you accumulate more and more papers that you copy or print, Bible records that a distant cousin has sent you, letters that your grandmother had from her cousin with all the latest family news in 1915 and more. How are you supposed to keep track of it all?
Relax! Genealogy is a fun hobby and there are many ways to get the paper dragon under control. Every researcher is different and you have to find the system that works best for you and that you will not only be comfortable with but willing to keep current. Before beginning, though, here are four questions you should ask yourself to help guide you through the process of getting organized.
What genealogical information am I looking for most that I can’t find?
Maybe the documents that elude you are birth or baptismal records. Perhaps they’re related to a specific branch of your family, or state, or county within that state. Do you keep misplacing that photo of Aunt Edith with her kids, whose names you wrote on the back? (Have I mentioned what a great idea it is to write on the back of photos?) This goes along with the next question.
What family history information would I like to have readily available?
Answering these first two questions will help you to prioritize your storage. The things that you want and can’t find are prime targets to get organized into binders, and the topic areas that are of greatest importance to you will help you determine what you put in the binders. Other kinds of documents, like postcards and photos, can go in other kinds of containers, such as boxes or crates. At this point you may be shaking your head asking, “Why does any of this matter? Everything is digital now anyway.” Bear with me, as we move on to the next question.
If I scanned all my genealogy pages and then boxed up the originals, could I find the digital versions any easier than the hard copies?
Being able to find the information you want is great, and I love computers and the Internet too. However, the longer you do genealogy research, the more paper you’ll collect, even in this digital age. You may be able to access census data online, but a lot of family information, like photos or letters, is likely to be in a shoebox in your attic. Of course, you can scan and save it, but just because it’s on a computer doesn’t mean you can find it easily. For all of its benefits, going digital doesn’t mean your organization problems are solved. It means you have something else to organize.
Do I still need to keep printed copies of my genealogy papers?
With census records readily available and easy to replace and the data transcribed and put into the notes of your genealogy database, do you really still need to keep the printed copies you may have? Would a scanned version be sufficient and then pitch the paper? That’s a lot of scanning, though. Ask yourself – if these pages have been in a stack for 30 years and not looked at (or found) then do I really need to keep storing them? Of course, this thinking doesn’t apply in all cases; you can scan papers, but you can’t digitize sentimental value (or original documents from 1847!).
Each person will answer these four questions differently, and you’ll likely find that your answers change over time. As your priorities change, you’ll probably reorganize, putting things that used to be critical into storage that’s out of the way, while choosing to keep other things handy. You may decide to scan more, but at the same time keep printed copies. After all, who knows how technology may change in five, ten, or twenty years? (Does anyone remember floppy disks?) You may find that you (or your descendants) need to scan those documents again, and again. At least by asking the right questions about organizing your family tree research, you’ll have a good place to start – or to start over.