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Organizing Your Family History Research

Family history research may not be a 'collecting' hobby, but it does involve the accumulation of a large amount of paper: family records, photographs, birth and death certificates, censuses, military records. The list goes on and on. At some point, these records must be organized or the researcher becomes overwhelmed.

Although computer proliferation has dated some of his ideas, William Dollarhide’s Managing a Genealogical Project still gives some good ideas on organizing these records; Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens’ software program Clooz keeps track of every bit of paper. Unfortunately, I am a lazy person and prefer to keep things as simple as possible. This paper details my system, but investigate other methods as well to find the method you prefer.

We have all heard the term K.I.S.S. This is the key to developing a system of organization that you can live with and actually use. Keep it simple. The system should meet these criteria:

My human mind tends to organize more by alphabet than by numerals, the exception being dates which are sorted chronologically. Although numbering systems may be very efficient, they are not easily remembered without explanatory material. In addition, much thought must go into a numerical organizational system or it will become outmoded as research expands. Do not use a system that requires more time than your research.

I Can't Live Without My Computer

Organization, research planning, and research tracking can be simplified with the help of a computer. I'm not sure I could get by without mine! These links provide information on free Internet forms, my personal software suggestions, and a discussion on evaluating genealogical software programs.

Individual Numbering Systems

Much work has been done on systems for numbering the individuals in your research. Individual numbering systems are used for the end product of your research: your published genealogy. They are not necessary during your research process. Organize your individuals by family and organize the families alphabetically. You will always be able to find them.

When the time comes to publish your work, choose an established numbering system, such as the Register system (used by the New England Historical and Genealogical Register) or the Record system (used by the National Genealogical Society Quarterly).

Selected Bibliography: Individual Numbering Systems

Aids for Organization of Research Projects





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If you are not using a genealogy software program for your research, you should be. There is no perfect program, but there are many which are very good. The program I use is called The Master Genealogist, an excellent program but not inexpensive. You may wish to begin with one of the free options, such as Legacy Family Tree.

As discussed in all class lessons, documenting your sources is one of the most important aspects of your research. When entering each source in your genealogy program, include a field for your filing location. This one field will allow you to find any document, no matter where it has been filed.

Example: You have located an old family Bible and photographed pages containing references for three generations. Included in these generations are three surnames you are researching: Gustin, Stephenson and Malone. Do you make three copies of this Bible and file a copy under each family folder? Do you make one copy and place a cross-reference note in each of the other folders? No. You note the filing location, Gustin Folder, in your source description, and all references to this family Bible will point to its filing location.