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Genealogy Documents |Filing Methods

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    Last Updated: August 20th, 2008

    Anyone who does genealogy even as a weekend hobby knows that you’re going to be literally buried under files and folders in no time at all.

    The hobbyist to the expert, wants to keep a copy of everything that you come across that pertains to what you are currently researching, and we are tempted by the vast array of copiers to do just that.

    Once you’ve got all those lovely copies of old photos, birth, death and marriage certificates, you’ve obviously got to do something with them.

    Beginning when you actually start with your genealogy can prevent an avalanche of paperwork that you just don’t want to have to dig through later.

    Absolutely the best method of keeping your files in order is going to be a genealogy software program, but thinking that its going to keep you paper free is a fallacy, and one that none of us who have researched even one family tree will buy into.

    The simple truth is that you’ve got stacks and stacks of copies of important paperwork, things that will help you verify the information you input into that software program and help you to illustrate anything you may write. Getting rid of a birth certificate that you copied five years ago isn’t going to be possible for genealogy pack rats, any more than burning up the photocopy of the family bible page that tells when your great grandparents were married. Paperwork is just part and parcel of what you’re going to be doing if you’re researching your family history.

    Paper free genealogy just isn’t possible.

    Filing systems range in genealogists from incredibly messy, “I know it’s here somewhere” to “give me a few minutes and I can find it” to the very precise formal filing system.

    Just having the documents you need isn’t really enough. You have to know where they are and are able to lay hands on them if you need them. To do that, you will want to begin filing with some level of precision when you begin to document your ancestry.

    Every amateur genealogist or historian needs to develop a system that works for them. It is to be hoped that you move rapidly past the “I know its here somewhere” phase with some degree of rapidity, and into the more formal methods of filing.

    At the very least, get a single file folder for each family, or family branch that you work with and keep them separate from the others, so that even if the documents are not filed precisely in family name and then document folders, each family history documents are kept separated from the others. This will allow you to access them readily when you need to answer a question or use them as illustration.

    Finding a basic form that you can use to file them is a matter of personal choice. Some genealogists use loose leaf binders, while others use notebooks or boxes to file their documents.
    I personally find it easier to use a hanging file, and to have smaller folders inside each one. One hanging folder has a family name. Inside that hanging folder will be a smaller folder that contains marriage certificates, birth certificates and death certificates. A second folder inside the hanging one contains news clippings, photos and so on.

    That system works for me, but granted, I don’t do a vast array of professional research, but am more a hobbyist. My genealogy is usually limited to one or two families at a time, it’s a hobby thing and I pass along the files to the family when the job is done, so I don’t keep a wide variety of files for a long time span.

    For those who are going into the business of genealogy full tilt, my system probably won’t work for you. It isn’t secure and it isn’t easy to always manage it, however I have issues with notebooks. The notebook however does seem to be the way of most professional researchers.

    Then too, is the issue of dropping things. The more professional genealogist will tell you that if you drop a folder, the entire contents will spill out and be in complete disarray, while a notebook will hold it firmly in place. That is in fact quite true and a notebook may save you several hours of sorting.

    You may decide to use a broad array of systems, and you may file in many ways. Some genealogists will break down their filing system by location, while others use the surname system and still others will get it together based on the document variety and then use sub categories for the various family surnames.

    Most seem to feel that the surname method works best for them and is the most common sense. In all honesty, your beginning method of filing will probably have a lot to do with how much paperwork you’ve already got in hand. If you have more than just a small amount, you’re going to want three or four file folders or notebooks, depending on what you want to use, and begin organizing it in that fashion.

    Another consideration for you is that if you have several branches of a family who all lived in one place for four or five generations, then using surnames isn’t going to be the best method for you to file under. Some researchers find that doing those type families using location is a better form for them.

    Many professional genealogists have different methods to teach you that will far surpass anything I may come up with, and studying those professional methods will help you to organize your materials well and be able to reference them when you need to do so.

    The bottom line is that no matter what type filing system appeals to your particular style, you do need to get moving and get organized in some way, to assure that all your work isn’t in vain.

    Even if you are just in the beginning phases of genealogy, or ancestral research, you don’t want to spend four hours searching for something that you know “it’s around here somewhere”. You want to spend your research time actively moving through No matter what system you use to organize your genealogy documentation, or to keep hold of your ancestral research, any system at all is far superior to no system.

    Make sure that you file genealogy documents or your copies of images and important paperwork so that you will have them at hand when find that you need one.

    My Ancestry Guide - The Complete Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry

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