2020.08.16 – How to Organize Yourself



  • Take the time
  • Collect your materials
  • Organize your materials
  • Different ways to organize
  • Retrace your steps if you need to
  • Clean up periodically
  • Organization for personal computers
  • Organization for Databases
  • Detail Summary


Take the time

OK, you’ve contacted your relatives, collected the clues, and learned a bit of the jargon. What do you do next? One of the least recognized, but most important things you can do when involved in Family History is to organize the records you’ve been given.

You may complain that it takes time to get organized, but the time you spend on getting organized will save you far more time than you take to get organized now. Instead of hunting all over the house and going around in circles for important pieces of information, you can go right to it, and the time savings will only compound in the future.

I once took a course on how to improve my finances. Near the start of the course, I ran into a strange section having nothing to do with finances; that of getting myself organized. Wanting to follow through, in the slight chance it might have anything to do with improving my finances, I went ahead and bought a filing cabinet and some hanging folders and started to organize my papers. I soon realized that I had papers all over the place, and finding anything specific would have been a real trial without organization. After I’d labeled the folders, alphabetized them, and put the relevant papers in them, I realized that it did make a difference as far as being able to locate documents quickly.

The funny thing is that after going through the course and applying other principles I’d learned, I can truthfully say after many, many years that, other things I’ve learned have come and gone, but keeping myself organized remains.

Organization is a fundamental principle of success. And you do want to be successful in Family History, right? Even if it’s just a box with manila folders, make sure it’s organized!

Collect your materials

Okay. So how do you get started? Well, as I’ve said in the past, start at the beginning. If you have contacted your relatives and received copies of records such as birth, death, and marriage certificates, family stories and autobiographies, newspaper clippings, etc. Collect them together in a room you will dedicate to Family History and review what you have.

There may be a box of pictures, or a stack of Family Group Sheets, or another stack of Pedigree Charts, some Family Organization books, or other artifacts. Different media, such as books versus papers versus pictures, may have to be stored differently.

The important thing in this step is to be thorough. Find as many artifacts as you can having to do with Family History. This may mean taking them out of their current storage location and relocating them to your Family History location. Still, the important thing is that you need to collect as many items as you can from wherever you can. Keeping them all together instead of strewn all over the house will make a big difference in locating them in the future.

Organize the materials

As stated above, the way you organize is dependent on factors that only you can determine. Just realize that if you choose a bad way to organize, it is far better than nothing. If you organize consistently, it will make it far easier to reorganize if you find a better way to do so in the future.

Look at each kind of media your artifacts are on. If they are pictures, maybe storing them in picture albums by family or person might be an excellent way to organize. If you have a computer, you can even scan the pictures in and arrange them in computer files. Storing them in the computer is nice because you can then share them with others on the internet.

If your materials are stacks of papers such as Family Group Sheets, you can organize them by the name of the head of household. For example I received a stack of Family Group Sheets from my Grandparents, no, actually two stacks, one from my Grandfather and one from my Grandmother. There were a lot of duplicate copies, and there were also missing copies. They had their way to organize that made sense to them, but to me, it was difficult to locate the information I needed to enter the information into the computer. (They didn’t have personal computers back when they were doing the research.)

So I took all of the Family Group Sheets and alphabetized them by head of household. I soon found that some of the names of the heads of household were duplicated, but were for different people, as they had different parents and were born in different time periods. So I sorted them by last name, first name, and birth date, or they didn’t have a birth date, by a date I calculated should have been their birth date. I have been using this system ever since, and it makes it very easy to find the people I’m looking for on Family Group Sheets.

Different ways to organize

But note also that different kinds of records and media (e.g., paper, CD, microfilm) require different types of organization.

An example of different kinds of records would be Pedigree Charts as versus Family Group Sheets. Family Group Sheets were simple to organize; all I had to do was to alphabetize them. But Pedigree Charts have their own kinds of organization. Organizing Pedigree Charts is mostly done using computer software these days, but I’m going to talk about organizing them on paper to illustrate a different way to organize.

A Pedigree Chart starts with one person and goes back a given number of generations in the past. Each generation back doubles the number of people because each generation had a Mother and a Father. If you are working with four-generation Pedigree Charts, the number of people at the end of the page on the right, after doubling each generation from the starting person, will be 16. A Pedigree Chart shown in a Fan Chart format will have this same issue, the only difference being that the starting person is in the center of the chart instead of at the left.

We’ll need to put generations that are further back time on other four generation Pedigree Charts. But we need to provide some way to link the charts together, so we know how to traverse from one chart to another. In the past, this has been done by specifying a page number for each of the 16 people at the end of the chart, 1-16. These numbers will then be included in the next chart, so you can continue back in time. For example, the first ancestor on the right will have the number 1, so the chart that continues after him will include the number 1, showing him as a starting point for the next chart. The chart with the last person to the right, assuming you were able to find that person, would be 16. She will have the number 16 added to the next chart that starts with her and goes back in time.

It is not important to be concerned with the particular numbering system used. You could use A – P instead of 1-16 if you wanted. The important thing is that you link the two charts together in a way that is meaningful. This is because the 3rd Pedigree Chart back may need to add another digit to your numbering system. For example, the first chart could be A, the next AA, the one after that AAA if you are looking at the direct line back. Just be sure your method of organizing is reasonable, simple, and easy to understand.

Different kinds of media may require different ways of organization. We have already given the example of using Photo Albums organized by family or by person, but let’s say you have autobiographies, stories, and newspaper clippings? How would you organize them? Obviously, we’ll need to organize them in a manner that makes sense at the time, and since no one will have the same circumstances as others, you’ll need to organize them how it makes sense to you. Just make sure they are organized.

Retrace your steps if you need to

With any project of any size, you’ll find that the amount of information you have in different categories may change over time. If the way you used to organize your materials no longer works, stand back, take a look at the objective you want to accomplish by the organization, and see if there’s a better way to do it.

In an ideal world, you can organize once, and everything will be hunky-dory from then on out. For me, the way I’ve organized my Family Group Sheets has worked out that way. But what if in the future I need to add my wife’s Family Group Sheets or some other issue happens that makes my original method unworkable?

When people get lost in the desert, it’s because they lose their map, their bearings, or their sense of direction. This can also happen when storing artifacts. When this happens, the best thing you can do is to stop what you were doing and where you’re headed and retrace your steps until you get back to a point where your surroundings look familiar. Then determine what to do from there. Getting lost in the desert can be fatal.

If you find that it is difficult to locate things and you always seem to be searching for them, rethink what you’re doing and how you’re approaching your research, then reorganize for your new approach so it makes sense and can help you find things quickly.

Clean up periodically

As we all know, things tend to get disorganized over time. This tends to occur when we get new artifacts or information and don’t have time to organize them at the time. The effects of disorganization tend to accumulate and can become worse and worse over time.

It is a good idea to set aside time to organize the accumulating mess periodically. This may be on an annual or a 5 year basis. It depends on how active you are in your Family History activities. Just find a period that best suits you.

Organization for personal computers

As you can tell, we have mainly been talking about organizing Non-Computer artifacts above. But organization is just as important in virtual reality as in reality.

The nice thing is that on a computer, you can nest your folders down as far as you need to be able to keep your items organized and easily accessible.

For example, let’s say you were organizing to save the information you want to refer back to for employment you’ve had over your life time. This may be for the purposes of creating a resume with supporting detail, or for medical issues experienced at a specific company, or for benefits etc.

Here is one way to organize:


  • Company A
  • Company B
  • Company C
    • Benefits
      • 401k
      • Health insurance
        • Plan A
        • Plan B
      • Dental insurance
      • FMLA
    • Medical claims
    • Resumes
    • Reviews
    • Telecommute
    • Time Sheets

Just as you could organize the information on your career, you also need to organize your computer files for Family History. I have used several ways to organize mine over time and will probably continue to reorganize as the information I work with changes.

Folders and sub-folders can be used to group by topic and individual files can be named to include important dates or names. To organize files create a file naming standard that reflects how you want them sorted in the directory. For example:

19480530_<Name>_Kindergarten_Report_Card.jpg or

<Sur Name>_<First Name>_Kindergarten_Report_Card_19480530.jpg

The way you organize will reflect your need to access the data over time. The big question is, how can I find what I’m looking for the fastest? If what you are doing currently makes it hard to find, reorganize.

Organization for Data Bases

If you work with either desktop or web applications, you’ll note that each system you deal with has its own way to organize the data it stores. Once you enter the data into a window and save it, the program will take the data you entered, split it up into related information and store it in records on a database. There are many database structures in use today, and each of the programs you use may have a different way to store and retrieve the data. You usually don’t need to know how the program stores the data to use it. The program will present screens to you that will allow you to insert, modify, or delete the data as needed.

What is important to know is that even though each tool you use can use a different methodology to organize and store data, for genealogical purposes, there are ways to communicate data from one tool to another. This way, you can share your information with others you trust.

One of the ways traditionally used in the area of Family History is the use of a format called GEDCOM. GEDCOM stands for Genealogical Data Communication. This is a common format that the industry has agreed upon to allow you to download information from your tool, which may have a different internal organization from another tool, and allow that other tool to upload that same information and reorganize it in the way that it understands the data. This allows you to send your data to your relative even if they have a different tool.

Cool huh?

In recent years some of the desktop tools being built have even allowed their users to upload and update personal data on large databases on the internet without the use of GEDCOM. They can link directly to those databases and update them from your desktop computer tool. Doing so makes it a bit simpler to update information, but be careful when you do, the data you have may not be as good as that others have, and you could get them mad at you by overlaying good data with bad.

Detail Summary

Whichever way you look at it, from paper to computer, from one kind of artifact to another, organization is always a good thing, and the better the organization, the better the results.

Seekerz, © 2020

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