The theme of this article – Stay Organized – grew out of personal experience, not just because there are a lot of magazine articles and genealogy book authors who recommend it. When I started my family history journey roughly fifty years ago, I kept my records on paper forms, first in a multi-pocket folder, then in separate folders – one to a family or line. Then I corralled them into a briefcase, and then I needed a second briefcase, and I think there might be a third briefcase around here. About that time, home computers came along and I shared a family tree computer program with my Dad who was my biggest original source of family information. By the time online databases were becoming available and Ancestry.com debuted, I was ready to set up my family tree online and continue to add to it other information I was finding online. I’m at a point now where I feel the need to organize – check all the information I’ve added to my tree from other people’s trees against the paper files in the briefcases, throw out duplicate hard copies and add source information to my Ancestry files. There were times I skipped saving my source information because I’d just spent much more time browsing than I’d planned to and I really should have been doing household chores…
I understand that not everyone wants to be super organized for this hobby. Some people enjoy meandering through genealogy sites and just following one lead to the next. Others have limited time to devote to searching and having an organization plan will help them find more in less time (we hope.)
I feel the most helpful organizing tool is worksheets, followed by folders. While searching for the quickest, easiest way to obtain free forms online, I found the site of the Mid-Continent Public Library in the Kansas City, Missouri area. Their Midwest Genealogy Center has various forms you can save as PDF files, then fill them in on your computer – what a timesaver! – then save them with the information or print them out. At www.mymcpl.org select the Midwest Genealogy Center tab and scroll down and click on “Family Forms.”
The Ancestry.com Library version has forms to print out. Start at www.OWWL.org , click on the Discover History tab, scroll down to “Ancestry from Home” under the Genealogy Resources heading and click on the URL and sign in with your library card ID and PIN or password. After clicking on “Ancestry Library Edition”, select the Charts and Forms tab, select the form you want and print it out.
Now that you have the forms, put together a plan. In the January/February 2017 Family Tree magazine, author Dana McCullough outlined seventeen habits to help with your genealogy search. Several of her points help with staying organized.
She suggests scheduling time to organize – whether it’s fifteen minutes a week or an afternoon a week or a bit of time each day or every other day. Start a specific task – identifying old photos or just a list of each part of your research that needs organizing. Just get started!
Next, plan to research regularly. Maybe allow yourself a few one-hour searches per week – especially if you are paying for a subscription website! This doesn’t have to be strictly scheduled unless that works better for you.
Cite your sources. I can tell you from personal experience that this is important – start now! There are three forms on the Ancestry Library Charts and Forms page that will work for this. They appear to be originally designed for use when microfilm was the most common source of genealogical information but can be adapted for use with online sources. Ignore the “microfilm #” block or use it for the web address of your source.
Another recommendation that goes on my “to-do” list is: digitize old photos. Ms. McCullough’s suggestion is to break the photos into manageable chunks, maybe by family group, time period or event. If you don’t have access to a scanner, but do have a smart phone, you could take pictures of the old photographs and send them to your email to be sorted and stored on your computer or a flash drive or in cloud storage.
Set up and maintain a master family tree. Check out my Genealogy Tips article posted on 4/27/20 for details on free or cheap ways to do this. Set up an account with FamilySearch.org or WikiTree.com or go all in and subscribe to Ancestry.com. When I was in high school (before computer genealogy programs and the internet) I set up my family tree on successive sheets of typing paper – similar to Ancestral Charts that can be numbered to connect the papers to create a larger paper tree. I had several branches of the tree copied and could change out pages depending on which section of the tree I was working on. It would take the whole table surface or a big area on the floor to lay it all out. Currently Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org and WikiTree.com manage this by digitally shrinking sections of the tree I’m not currently looking at.
Setting up a genealogy-only email address can also help you to stay organized, especially if you are contacting possible relatives from genealogy sites or if you have given your email address to sites like Family Tree magazine in order to use free options. In that case, you’ll be getting newsletters and advertising. Some internet email services offer multiple email accounts to their customers or you can set up a free account at gmail.com or yahoo.com or do an internet search – there are lots of free email account options.
Ms. McCullough recommends you back up your digital genealogy files and photos at least once a month. Also you should backup records immediately after you add a lot of information or make changes to your records. Use a flash drive, an external hard drive or a cloud backup service.
It’s always exciting to find new ancestors in your search. If you “Keep Organized” it should help you find more relatives without doing the same searches over several times.
Organize and Carry On!