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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Organizing Genealogy Research : The Basics

You need to organize your family history research. 

  • If you don't, you will continually repeat the same research---which means you're not getting to new research. 
You also need to review your previous genealogy work. This means being able to find that work. 

  • Organization is how you find your previous research. 
I can't overstate the value of organizing your genealogy!

In this post we're going to look at some often overlooked basics you MUST address before actually getting organized.

  • Personal considerations.
  • "Rules" for a functional genealogy organizing system.
  • Basic organizing systems to consider.


Hint: Your "previous research" is more than just genealogy records or documents. You want to be able to find those but there's more! Make sure you consider more than just filing copies of documents or forms when you think about organizing your family history research. Learn more with our email series for the (free) Brick Wall Solution Roadmap.

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Basics Before You Start Organizing Genealogy Research

One of the most important things you need to know about organizing your genealogy research is there is not ONE right way to do it. Your method or organizing system has to be the right choice for you and your unique research. This is unfortunately one of the things that makes getting organized harder.

Secondly, you must recognize that family history is a life-long hobby. That means your organization system needs to withstand the test of time. This actually makes organizing easier. (How does this make it easier? You no longer have to choose from so many options. You want a time-tested option and there are fewer of those. This also means you don't need to, and shouldn't, invent an organizing system!)

Now that you've accepted that you need the right system for you and that you need a time-tested system, let's look at the "rules" you need to follow to find the system that will work for you.

Organizing Principles for Family History

Here are the "rules" you need to follow to create a great genealogy organizing system.

  1. Your chosen system must work for you.
  2. You must adapt a system to your needs/the needs of each project.
  3. Your system must not be too complicated/convoluted.
  4. Your system must stand the test of time.
  5. BONUS : Your system should be understood by others so your research can be passed on to a family member or repository.

Below are explanatory details for each of these principles.

#1 You Need a Functioning Genealogy Organization System

If you don't use your system, it's pointless. This goes back to that basic about there not being one right system. There are amazing options out there but if you don't organize what you've found AND retrieve it efficiently, that system is not for you. Of course, you have to take responsibility to try and stay organized but if you are trying but struggling, maybe you need a different system.

This is why genealogy organizing is so hard. You can't just grab a tried and true system and implement it. There are multiple parts to why you might not be successfully using a system and some of the other rules address those.

#2 Customize Your Genealogy Filing System

Whether you are creating a "filing system" or more of an organizing method, it needs to fit your preferences but also your research. When I started (back in the paper-only days) I went with the common, "file by surname" option. I adapted the surname system to fit my needs. BUT, paper files were a really bad fit for my research. My entire family is from Georgia. I mainly research my father's family and they eventually settled into two counties. I know many researchers that are able to stay organized by adding locations to their surname system, not me.

I like to use my research as an example of why you need to customize because filing the results wasn't hard. The surname system was great for putting the results away. But that's not the point of an organizing system.

A genealogy organizing system is about finding what you need when you need it, ideally without needing to know the exact item you're looking for.

Using electronic filing helps me but I need to adapt my system to be able to find related material without knowing what I'm looking for. (My main problem is how often items I find while working on one project are related to a different project. I'd waste a lot of time if I had to start from scratch to find that same item again and I might not find it.) Your research will have its own unique needs. Most genealogists don't have the extreme case I have but at some point there will be an important part of your research where you need to adapt a tried and true system to your unique needs.

[If you're not quite clear on how my issue requires an adaptation of a system:

One item might need to be filed under two, three, or more surnames. You can see why digital options helped. But more importantly, I need to retrieve that item when I need it for a surname, or other "search term" that I didn't know about when I filed it. Every genealogist has this need, my case just makes filing by surname or location a problem from the start and those are two common organizing systems.]

#3 Keep It Simple

Not surprisingly, after talking about customizing your organizing system, you need to be reminded not to make it too complicated. You must use your system to both keep your material and find it when you need it. I know for my needs, I easily start contemplating convoluted systems. But they are too complex to maintain---meaning I won't use them. This is principle three but it's like the glue that keeps all the other principles together.

Your system doesn't have to be "simple," in the sense of only filing by surname (that's simple, easy to remember, you know how to do it---but too simple if you need to find something by anything other than surname). As you contemplate why you're struggling and how to adapt a system to your needs, remind yourself to keep it simpler rather than more complex. 

You want to aim for an ideal mix between customized and simple.

#4 Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Learn about tried and true genealogy organizing systems. Systems that were created before the use of computers are the best place to start. Also, try and learn about the problems genealogists have had with different systems. Look out for "I've been doing genealogy for two years and just came up with the best organizing system!" Two years is not a long time when talking about genealogy. In fact, two years is almost the perfect timespan to find, and fall for, every pitfall out there.

There are lots of potential pitfalls in organizing genealogy. You can find lots of ways to save time and effort right now, but five or ten years down the road, you're having to redo most of your research. You can avoid these pitfalls by knowing about proven systems and adapting them rather than trying something totally new. Apply new technology or ideas to a strong foundation instead of starting from scratch.

Related: I've also written a post with real-life examples of problems with genealogy organizing systems, here.

Hint: Be careful with new apps (as opposed to new technology concepts that are available in many formats). Apps rarely last as long as your genealogy will. I've seen many great uses of non-genealogy apps for genealogy. There's no problem except getting your research trapped in an app that isn't around in a year, two, or even ten years. Use new apps as long as you can easily maintain your organizational structure when they change or go out of business.

#5 Pass on your research

I won't call this last item a principle or rule but it is ideal. Your organizing system should be understandable to someone else. That's usually a good check that it isn't too complex. However, there are plenty of genealogists that can create and maintain a system that is too complex for someone else to easily pick it up. As far as your research goes, that's fine. But if you want your research to outlive you, a system someone else can understand (without written instructions) is usually needed.

Recently I split this post so it'd be faster to read (you can save the follow-up posts for later and know you aren't rereading content!)

Find the next part of this post: Tried and True plus Digital and Hybrid Options, here.

Or try out Organizing Genealogy Research : What You Need to Organize.