Family Discoverer: A good system helps avoid the paper monster

At some point in each genealogist’s life comes the time to think about that dreaded word “organization.” A computer software program really helps with organizing as I’ve written before, but most of us collect hard (paper) copies of the material we enter into our software. I confess I keep original or copies of vital records, deeds, wills, and other materials. Most genealogists I know do as well.

While it’s always best if you have a system in place for handling paper records before you begin to research, the sad truth is that most of us jump into the fun part, researching our ancestors, with no thought of how to handle the paper we collect. All too soon there are piles of paper littering the desk and locating a specific record is nearly impossible.

How to handle your paper copies is highly personal like choosing a spouse. Experts will tell you their method is best but if you find it cumbersome and don’t use it, the expert’s system is a failure.

I have a good friend who has scanned her documents onto the hard drive of her computer and linked them to her software. She has an online backup service (which I highly recommend for all who use a computer) and is happy with her choice. But she is relatively new to genealogy. If I tried to utilize her system I’d spend months or even years scanning items onto the hard drive of my computer and I’d much rather research than begin again with a new system at this stage.

One of the oldest and easiest organizational systems is color-coded filing and this works very well. Some people place records for a particular family in a certain colored file and choose another color for a different family. With that method it’s easy to tell at a glance where all the Smith records will be found.

Others use color-coding for the type of records – all birth records in the blue file, all death records in the green file, etc. This works well for them though it’s not a method that I would use myself.

I use a combination of general material in file folders but genealogical records in three-ring binders. My binders may hold records on a particular individual or a family group. For me this makes perfect sense and I can retrieve materials quickly. It is space consuming, however, and since I now have 92 binders and counting and have filled two, six shelf bookcases, and now need another bookcase, it won’t work if you’re space constrained. After 30-plus years of researching your binder collection will be equally as impressive as mine.

Ultimately, the way you organize your records is up to you. If you have a system you will use, that allows you to locate what you need when you want it, and are happy with the way it works, then that is the best method of organizing. Don’t listen to the experts or anyone else who tells you you’re wrong.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society. Reader emails are welcome at Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at the Caribou Library at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.

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