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
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:
- The user should be able to find any required information quickly.
- The system must be self-evident. A new user should be able to interpret it easily.
- As research expands, the system must grow also.
- The system must not take precedence over the research.
- Label one legal-size folder with each surname being researched.
Initially, every record found on the family goes into the appropriate folder. Include pedigree charts
and family group sheets as well as documentation. Add research ideas to the appropriate folder to keep
them readily available. Records involving multiple surnames, such as marriage records, may be copied and
placed in each folder or may be placed in one folder but cross-referenced in the other. Note
that cross-referencing can be an automatic function when entering documentation
in your genealogical software program.
- Ideas for expansion:
- As information on an individual grows, consider assigning a separate folder to that person.
- Consider adding folders for types of records, such as Case Family Pensions or Gifford Family
- Many records deal with so many different families at once that even cross-referencing does not work
well. Set up folders or binders for specific record groups. This record group system expands naturally.
Also, the proper citation to a document in your work points to the location of that document in your own records
as well as to the location of the original document. Examples:
- Censuses: organize by country, then year, then state alphabetically, then town alphabetically, then
by page, dwelling or line number.
- Military records: organize by country, war, then alphabetically by surname.
- Probate records: organize by country, by state, then county alphabetically, then chronologically or
alphabetically by surname.
- Set aside folders for pamphlets and articles which aid your research, such as holdings in archives or
libraries, maps, local history articles, or education. Label these folders by location or by topic.
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
- Board for Certification of Genealogists. The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. Orem, Utah:
Ancestry Publishing Co., 2000.
Review, last accessed January 2007.
- Crane, Madilyn Coen. "Numbering Your Genealogy - Special Cases: Surname Changes, Step
Relationships, and Adoptions." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 83 (1995): 85-95.
- Curran, Joan Ferris. "Numbering Your Genealogy: Sound and Simple Systems." National Genealogical
Society Quarterly 79 (1991): 181-193.
- Hatcher, Patricia Law and John V. Wylie. "Indexing Family Histories." National Genealogical Society
Quarterly 81 (1993): 85-98.
- Wray, John H. "Numbering Your Genealogy: Multiple Immigrants and Non-emigrating Collaterals."
National Genealogical Society Quarterly 85 (1997): 39-47.
- Pence, Richard A. "Numbering Systems in Genealogy."
last accessed January 2007.
Aids for Organization of Research Projects
- Dollarhide, William. Managing a Genealogical Project. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.,
1989, updated 1999. Review,
last accessed January 2007.
- Clooz: The electronic filing cabinet for genealogists. Ancestor Detective: 1998 [software].
- Kerstens, Elizabeth Kelley. Get It
Together, an organizing column now archived at Ancestry.com. If this link doesn't work, visit the
Ancestry library and select Elizabeth Kelley
Kerstens from the list of columnists. Last accessed January 2007.
Please mail comments and suggestions to Susan Johnston at
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.