A recent move to the Sunshine State and to a larger home than my NYC apartment has reminded me of the benefit of having a space committed to genealogy. For 17 years, I have worked from a small desk or kitchen table trying to organize documents into neat binders and files but have never found an ideal system. We all begin this journey with a handful of documents, then as more trickle in we devise some plan for organizing them. A typical first attempt at taming the clutter is to place everything into files, labeled by surname, family group or record type. After a few years, suddenly it’s difficult to find documents. One folder fills up and we create an overflow folder. Pretty soon the simple alphabetical approach no longer works because there are multiple spellings for the same surname. Then it’s just a slow decline into complete and utter chaos.

Now that limited space is no longer an excuse, I’ve been working on creating the ultimate genealogy room. Photographs have been painstakingly protected against the threat of humidity (more instructions in an upcoming post). Documents were scanned, numbered and filed in a system similar to those used by county clerks. Remarkably, everything is now contained in one room, no longer scattered over every flat surface in my home.

The organizing system that I have created is easy to use and will last a lifetime:

Step 1: Divide all documents into the following categories:

  • Vital:  Birth, Marriage and Death
  • Church
  • Newspaper: Articles and Obituaries
  • Military
  • Cemetery
  • Legal: Probate, Land, Divorce and Criminal
  • Letters and Manuscripts
  • Miscellaneous

Step 2: After the records are sorted, give each document a unique number. For vital records the numbers start with V followed by B for birth, M for marriage, or D for death. Then add a four digit number beginning with 0001 (e.g. VB0001 for the first birth certificate, VM0001 for the first marriage record and VD0001 for the first death record).

Step 3: Scan each document and then name the digital image file after the number of the document – e.g. VB0001.jpg. It’s important to note that the documents do not need to be sorted by date, name or place, only by category.

Step 4: Organize the digital images in desktop folders named after the categories listed under step 1.

Step 5: Store the original documents in heavy-duty acid-free sheet protectors (available at any office supply store). Place them by number order in binders labeled by the same categories above. Use index dividers to separate documents by subcategories. To fit two documents in one page protector, place a piece of acid-free paper between the documents. Use tiny labels on the outside of the page protectors to number each document, don’t mark the document itself. If you have a large collection I recommend using 3” binders. Legal sized sheet protectors and binders are also available.

Step 6: After all the scanning, labeling and filing is complete, create an index sorted by surname, maiden name, given name, date, place and number (or any other relevant information). The beauty of this system is that it doesn’t matter how many documents you collect, they will always be easy to find. Each time a new document arrives scan it, number it and add it to the index. Keep the index on your computer and place a printed copy inside each binder.

The importance of organized family history documents can not be overstated. Being able to quickly find what documents you do or don’t own will avoid unnecessary energy and expense and will help you determine your next research steps.