Basics of Genealogy – Paper Organization

Paper organization….ah, the subject that all genealogists know we need, we all strive for, and you can learn to dread if you haven’t started with a system or started with one, but just couldn’t maintain it.  The key to an organization system, whether dealing with genealogy or any other type of organizing, is to find a system that works for you and that you enjoy using.  If you simply try to take someone else’s “system” and force yourself to use it, you are most likely doomed from the outset.  What I offer below is my own personal system and a few suggestions for changing it. 

First, let me put out a disclaimer….I admit that my system is by no means perfect, but hopefully you can do as I did and take pieces of this system and various others and adapt them into your own personalized system.

Okay…the basic physical “shell” of the system is pretty simple.  It just consists of hanging file folders and regular manila folders.  For the hanging folders, I recommend box bottom ones because eventually you will need the expansion room that they offer.  My file folders are the type that have the two hold punch paper “brads” built in (like what you see in the picture.  I will explain why I chose those here in just a bit.  Outside of those two types of folders, I also have an accordion-style folder that I use for my “to go” research.

Now…to the “meat” of the system.  My system is relatively simple.  Each hanging file folder is labeled with a Surname that I am researching (Washler, Link, Hill, Hablawetz, etc.).  Within that hanging file, I have a series of regular file folders.  The first is a Surname Research folder.  I usually label that folder simply SURNAME Research (e.g. WASHLER Research).  This folder contains my notes pages that pertain to multiple families within the name, or notes that I have not been able to confirm which family they belong to, as well as any evidence that I have found that I have not been able to attach to a specific family.  After the Surname Research Folder, I have two folders for each family within the surname.

The first folder will be the Family Proof folder.  The label for this one is SURNAME – Husband/Wife Proof (e.g. LINK – Isaac/Anna Proof).  This folder is where I keep all of the originals of any evidence I have collected regarding this family.  Examples would be printed copies of Census Records, Copies or original newspaper clippings, original vital records (birth, death, marriage, etc) and any other item of proof that I have collected.  Some of these folders hold full manuscripts that I have obtained from various sources.  If I have a reference book that mentions this family, I keep a source sheet in the proof folder that references the book, where it is on my shelves, and the pages that mention the family.  This folder never, I repeat never, leaves the house.  If I had to grab just one section of my genealogy research during a house fire, it would be these folders because they contain everything I would need to completely rebuild my research!

The second folder is the Family research folder.  These folders will typically be named SURNAME – Husband/Wife (e.g. LINK – Isaac/Anna).  Within this folder, I keep everything I need to research this particular family.  The first thing that is added to each folder is the Family Group Sheet for that family.  I use a two hole punch at the top and then use the brads on the folder to attach it to the front cover.  I use the family group sheet generated by FamilyTree Maker, but you could also use a hand-written form similar to the one offered by  The other sheets that are usually contained in this folder are a Research Extract and a Source Summary.  The Research Extract form is a quick and convenient way to make notes on specific pieces of evidence that I find, and the Source Summary is a running log of what sources I have used in my research for that family.  The Source Summary has been invaluable to me in preventing me from back-tracking or going back over a source that I have already gleaned information from or found to be a dead end.  The other part that I like about the Source Summary sheet is that if I need to go back to the source where I found a piece of information, this sheet will tell me where that was without having to pull up FamilyTree Maker.  In addition to the pre-printed forms, I typically keep a photo-copy of any evidence pieces that I have not fully evaluated and cited, all of my hand-written research notes for this family.

I mentioned earlier that I use an accordion-style folder for my “to go” research.  This is really used for library or courthouse trips where I may be planning to research more than one family.  I can take the family research folders that I will need and slip those into the accordion file for easy storage and transportation.

I should include here a brief mention of how I determine when to create the family research and proof folders.  My general rule of thumb is that once I have evidence or proof of a child in a particular family getting married, I promote them to their own set of folders.  My reasoning for that rule is that once I have the information on their marriage, I am more likely to begin working on tracing their children and adding to their life stories.  If a child remains unmarried, I will usually leave them in their parents’ set of folders for my research.

I also carry with me a “general” research folder.  This folder contains notes that may pertain to more than one surname as well as my research “cheat sheets” such as a short set of notes on how to properly cite certain types of sources, lessons learned on how to deal with certain types of sources, and anything else of a nature that doesn’t pertain directly to one particular family.

One final note about my folder system.  If there was one thing I would change about this system, it is the idea that I have seen of color coding each surname.  The idea here is that all of the folders (hanging and manila) for a particular surname would be the same color.  This makes it easier to very quickly find the surname you are looking for in a filing cabinet FULL of research folders.  Someday, if I have the time and energy, I will likely go back to my filing cabinet and add this element.

Next in my “basics” series, I will talk about electronic organization of genealogy research.  As always, I welcome comments and suggestions for future posts!

Happy digging!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s