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Meet the Author
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 : Organizing System Options

This is a follow-up post with brief information about...

  • Tried and True Research Systems
  • The Gold Standard for Genealogy Filing
  • Hybrid and Digital Genealogy Organization

Make sure you start with our post about organizing basics.

Tried and True Organizing Options (Folders, Binders, & More!)

For paper files or the simplest electronic filing.

This option is file folders such as you find in a file cabinet or electronic folders treated the same way.

Go with file folders broken up by one of these options:

  • surname, 
  • branch of the tree, 
  • document type (such as census, marriage, etc.), 
  • location, or 
  • project. 

You can also choose between filing alphabetically or chronologically for some files.

You will have to decide which option based on your research. You can use a variety of the options above and you should be nesting folders within a main folder so you can split your files. When I started I had surname files and then a separate set of location files for items about locations (i.e. not research results). Items went in one or the other of these options, not both.

Your nested folders might use a different option from the main option you choose. For example, one main surname folder might need to be split by generation/family group, another surname by record type, another surname might need to be split by location. As another example, your main organizing method might be branch of the tree or location. Your nested folders might then be surnames for the second level and then project or document type for the third level.

What works and how many levels you split your material will partly depend if you're using paper or digital. You can have folders within folders within folders for digital.

Make sure you system doesn't become too complicated as you adapt to fit your research. Remember, you have to be able to find what you need, not just file it away.

For paper: great for sharing/easy "grab and go" research

Genealogists love using a binder. I personally can't stand the space it takes to store everything in binders but you might be focused on a use of the binder besides just storage. Binders are ideal if you want to share material with visitors to your home. They are perfect if you use paper and need to grab everything and run out the door. If you need to move your paper around the house and have others in your household that might mess up a loose file folder ("others" could be kids, pets, or a careless spouse or roommate)--binders are far more secure.

Tip: What I personally love genealogical binders for is using them like an extra monitor. I prefer to organize digitally but having a project in a binder, so I can put it in front of my computer, is great. This gives me extra monitor space because what's in the binder doesn't need to be on the monitor.

Using a binder instead of a file folder makes it easy to open and close the project without the papers getting spread around and possibly left on my desk. For this use, the binder is not the organization method but the binder does need to be organized. This is an adaptation that isn't too complicated and let's you work in different ways. Our Brick Wall Solution Research Binder Kit is designed for this use.

The Gold Standard for Paper (and adaptable for digital)

Whether you're filing paper in folders or binders, using your research log or creating a free-standing cross-index (like a table of contents for files) is the best way to find what you need. However, it is a lot of work to keep a paper index sufficiently updated. 

With paper, you really need to create a cross-index in addition to your research log so you can make additions and create different ways to find something (for example, indexed by surname vs. indexed by location).

A spreadsheet (i.e. a digital document, not a paper table) is a more robust way to do this. A digital spreadsheet is searchable and sortable. You can even keep track of items filed in different ways (the spreadsheet can contain links to digital files and tell you where paper files are found---it's a great option if you have both digital and paper files). You can likely create one spreadsheet to be your cross-index since you can search/sort by the different ways you'd need to find something.

Tip: If you are lost between paper and digital (or prefer using both), you could also create a cross-index in word processing software if spreadsheets cause you to break out in hives. Word processing software (like MS Word or a free alternative) will be searchable but not sortable (note: there may be some limited sort functionality for some tables). 

A searchable table is an improvement over a paper cross-index but not as powerful as a spreadsheet. If you won't use a spreadsheet, it doesn't matter how powerful it is!

You can also create a digital cross-index for paper-only files. That will allow you to search the cross-index even if you don't want to scan decades worth of genealogical research.

A digital cross-index can also be your ticket to a simpler filing option. If I were to start today (i.e. just be starting my research and with paper), I'd create a digital cross-index and file my papers by project surname, i.e. I'd file material based on the surname I was researching at the time. This is easy to file. I'd add other surnames or keywords into my cross-index. I'd retrieve material by starting with the cross-index, not my research log or going to my file cabinet. This would be really hard for me to create after researching for over 30-years (if I wanted to try it, I'd focus on starting the cross-index for one project at a time and ignore all the projects I wasn't working on at that moment).

Digital and Hybrid (paper+digital) Options

I've considered the above suggestion of a cross-index but using digital files and Evernote instead of an actual cross-index because it is so hard to start after so many decades of research. The biggest hurdle is how little time I have for my own research---I keep spending it writing blog posts like this one.

While thinking about this (but not getting to actually do it, because of my lack of free time), I actually ended up developing our Digital Dashboard that is now included with The Occasional Genealogist Planner. The Dashboard is like an organizing cross-index for anything genealogy, not just research.

If you've purchased the Planner+Dashboard, recognizing how it fits into "organizing" is important. It's also a concept you can DIY, so I want to briefly cover how that concept relates to organizing systems.

A Digital Dashboard and Organizing

The Digital Dashboard is provided in Google Sheets so it's a spreadsheet, which I've already discussed as a cross-index powerhouse. The Dashboard itself is not a cross-index, although you can add a tab to it to be a cross-index if you want. It would depend on your organizing system so a cross-index is not included.

The idea of the Dashboard can also substitute for a cross-index because it's the same idea. You use links to get from where you are, to where you want to go. What does that mean? The idea of the Dashboard is you open it when you want to do genealogy. You start at the table of contents and click the link for where you want to go. If you aren't trying to open a template or get how-to information but actually do genealogy, you will go to either the task list or project list. That's different than a cross-index which is like the index to a book. It is full of topics (that could be projects but also surnames, locations, subjects, etc.).

A cross-index is to help you find your file material, whether that is a document copy, notes, a report, a research log, etc. The Dashboard can link to anything related to genealogy.

Starting at the project list in the Dashboard, you would link to a "sub-hub." That's the phrase I use for a Dashboard that is just for one project instead of all your genealogy (it's confusing to talk about the Dashboard or a project dashboard or sub-dashboard so I'm using a different word, "sub-hub." You have one Dashboard but many sub-hubs). Organizing your sub-hub is very much organizing like this post discusses. So let's look at starting with the task list and how that's different.

The Occasional Genealogist Planner first started as a paper planner to organize genealogy to-do lists (genealogy tasks). Occasional Genealogists often need to work on tasks that may not fit with a project so this was a big deal (here's the post that talks about this). The Digital Dashboard provides a digital option instead of a paper planner for organizing lists and much more.

A cross-index is about finding that filed material. If you started at your task list in the Dashboard, the link for a task should take you wherever you need to go to start that task. You have to decide what that link needs to be. 

  • You might link to a project sub-hub (if your task is related to a project, that's the best place to go, next). 
  • If you task is, learning about genealogy organizing systems, it might link to a list of related websites you saved in a tab in your Dashboard (that is an "education plan"). 
  • If your task was creating cover sheets for paper files, it might link to the coversheet template file.
  • If the task was reviewing what new records were added to Ancestry, the link could go to that webpage (here's the Ancestry card catalog sorted by date updated, if you want to try this out).

There's more to organize besides research results. The Digital Dashboard is designed for this purpose but you can also create your own solution. As with the cross-index mentioned in the "Gold Standard" section, you can organize digital and paper options with the Dashboard. However, the Dashboard is NOT your organizing system, it is a tool to help you (and hopefully simplify your system just as a cross-index can). Below is more information on digital-only options which can work with the Dashboard, a cross-index, or other tools

Digital Filing Systems for Family History Research

If you want to go digital with your organization, you can rely on word processing software and images and storing the files in a way that works best for you (this might be electronic file folders as described above or a mix of the options below). 

Make sure you don't have things in too many different places (for example, some in software, some in file folders, some in Evernote) resulting in missing some items when you go to find what you need. The Digital Dashboard is one way to use a few different formats and still keep everything together (via the links in the Dashboard). The cross-index suggestion is also a way to know where to search for anything but there are other options, too. It's still best to try not to keep things in too many places. If you use multiple apps or formats, you need a central starting point like the Dashboard, a cross-index, or robust genealogy software.

Make sure you can find what you need when you need it.

Genealogy Software

I recommend thinking of your genealogy software as a filing cabinet rather than THE organizing system. Some software programs are not robust enough to meet all the needs of a great genealogist (and you want to aim for "great" not just "OK"). Even programs that can handle whatever you need to do, only working in your software (i.e. not using paper or the digital equivalent) is not always ideal. 

A good software program will let you upload/attach files which means you can use it like a file cabinet. But make sure you can actually find what you need, without needing to look for the exact document. This essentially means knowing what your search options are for the software you use.

I know of several genealogy software programs that can do pretty much everything. However, I created the Dashboard because I find it overwhelming to try and remember how to get things into the software correctly and then how to get what I want out (for example, software programs excel at creating reports, but you have to have the right information in the right fields to get the report you want, I don't do enough research to remember this so I spend a lot of my time finding my instructions on how to do what I need to do. And that's after I've extracted and organized the instructions to make them faster to find when I need them!).

There are people that are power users of their chosen software and can use it as their primary organizing system. Most genealogists, especially Occasional Genealogists, are better off using it like a filing cabinet (you file results after you are done researching, this includes after you write up your summary of what you found, software can't think for you!). Use the features you know how to use well.

Tip: If you like using software, that doesn't mean it has to be your organizing system. Genealogy software is a tool. Use it appropriately. Just as with physical tools, you can and should use the right tool for the job. You're allowed to have a hammer and multiple screwdrivers. You're allowed to use genealogy software and other genealogy tools.

RelatedThis post on our (new) sister blog talks about picking genealogy software using a similar method to this post's approach to organizing.

Evernote/OneNote

For my inter-related family, Evernote is a great solution. I have a caveat, though, I personally want to back up everything to another format so I'm not tied to Evernote (for that long-term stability and the option to pass everything on to a non-Evernote user, especially if Evernote isn't around at that point!). Backing up Evernote can be done with PDFs and/or HTML files which are as long-term viable as something like Google Docs or MS Word.

Tip: You can apply some of the concepts that make Evernote/OneNote great for genealogy to digital files in general. This isn't for the tech-averse but if you don't want a specialty program but also don't want to just use paper filing concepts on electronic file folders, you can learn about using Evernote for genealogy organizing and adapt the best ideas to digital files (for example, using keywords and the description to allow more targeted searches).

Initially I had thought I'd try creating a cross-index in Evernote but I don't think that will work for me. I love Evernote but I've never liked keeping a research log in it. Instead, I can keep notes and ideas in Evernote (even document copies or anything else I'd "file" in a filing cabinet). I can link to those from my Dashboard or sub-hubs and then keep lists or things that do well being filtered and sorted in the Dashboard (such as budgets, education plans, to-do lists, or links to other apps).

I find Evernote is a good digital option for what I used to fight to file when I only used paper. For me, it is my filing cabinet. But now I can keep up with more things (like budgets and to-do lists) using digital options. Many of those I don't want in Evernote. This is just an example of customizing to fit personal preferences.


What About Organizing Old Photos?

Organizing photos can be a completely separate topic. You need to know if the photos need to be found when searching your genealogy files or if this is just like organizing any family photos (i.e. you might like them in some type of order but the point is just enjoying looking at them, not research). My family does not have many old photos so this is not an area I'm an expert in so I don't have any specific advice just for photos.


This post was designed to give you concepts to think about before you start organizing, not concrete next steps. But here's what you can DO.

Think about your research, are there clear distinctions between locations, ethnicities, surnames, branches, etc. (it might be some of these or all of these)? How do you think of your research, what would be "things" you'd think of that you'd go to your "files" to find? This might be a surname, a location, a religion, document type, type of form/report/chart, projects, etc. These are good starting points for an organizing system. You need this top-level in your mind before you can get to actionable next steps.

You don't want to learn all about filing by location if you're in a situation like mine where there aren't distinct locations. If you've got a lot of repeated surnames, you might want to learn about alternatives to filing by surname. Regardless, once you have an idea about a good way to break up your "files," you will be able to think about that option for whatever method you're learning about For example, if you are reading about using Evernote for a surname-based system, you can think if the specifics would work as well for your preferred location-based system. They may or may not. It's important to know what file categories you are realistically considering before you spend too much time on something that isn't going to work for your unique situation.

Bonus: The other half of this top-level consideration is the physical organizing system. Do you prefer paper or digital (or both). Are you a technophile or a technophobe? Are there things you've tried you liked or hated? Are there things you've already got you want to use (whether that's a file cabinet or software/app)? If this isn't simple to hold in your head, consider making a list. There are lots of genealogy organizing posts out there and you might want to add options you haven't considered to your own list so you can look for information about specific options.


Recap: Options for Genealogy Files

Here are common options for file types. Most genealogists want to organize by one or more of these options.

  • Surname
  • Location
  • Branch of the tree (i.e. grouping multiple surnames together)
  • Generation
  • Document type
  • Project

Learn more about what to organize in this companion post.