Genealogy packrats

1 year ago

“A place for everything and everything in its place” is an adage you may have heard. It’s good advice for everyone, including genealogists.  

My goal is to be able to put my hand on whatever I need exactly when I need it without searching.  Wouldn’t life be easier with no time wasted hunting for the missing scissors or the notes you took from your last research jaunt? Do I have a place for everything? If only!

I want to have everything in good order but lately things have fallen apart as I clear and sort items from the house.  My husband, known affectionately as my lovable packrat, has his own piles and heaps contributing to the clutter. 

Fair warning: This is a “do as I say, not as I do” column.  Here are some suggestions for establishing order in your genealogical life.

Enter data in your genealogical software as soon as possible following research.  Don’t let it pile up while you wait for a “free moment.”  In my experience, free moments are few and far between.   Make yourself take care of items lest they get buried.

Make a list of what is missing in your research and what needs doing.  Then work on it.

If you need to send away for a document or record, do it and keep a copy of your request.  Destroy that copy when your document arrives.

If you keep physical files, set up hanging file folders with labels such as “to file,” “to write for,” “further research,” queries, location of the missing scissors (just making sure you’re reading this), and so forth.

Have a to-be-shredded box near your desk and shred once a week.  Ditto for recyclable paper. When full, haul away.

If you don’t keep physical files, then scan research material into your software on a regular basis, then shred or recycle any paper copies. 

Be sure you back up your genealogical software.

Consider binders devoted to different families or file folders depending on how much material you’ve accumulated in your research and how much space you have.  If color coding different family files works for you, invest in some files. 

Narrow your research.  You don’t need files on seventh cousins.

Stay up to date on your work.  It’s time wasting having to re-research because you can’t find your notes. 

If only I could follow my own advice.  Currently, my desk is in chaos as I write this column, the surface glimpsed only briefly among stacks of paper, all needing my attention.  I could plead family health issues and the fact that I’m clearing out rooms in the house and repainting, but I fear I may have a genetic disposition to what I call “pack-rattism.” My parents, children of the Great Depression, never threw things out.  The Depression taught them to be thrifty.  

I agree in principle, but I am still dealing with some of their “saved” items, not to mention our own.  If you’re like me, fight that packrat urge.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at