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Tips for getting — and keeping — your genealogy organized

Barry Ewell offers tips on organizing family history research.
Barry Ewell offers tips on organizing family history research.

When it comes to genealogy, starting out organized is easier than getting organized later on. It didn't take long before my own research became weighed down with pedigree charts, family group records, to-do lists, research logs, documents, notes and research tools. I was robbing myself of precious research time because I spent hours looking for what I knew I had and duplicating research I had already done.

After I became organized, I was able to do the following:

  • Know exactly what information I had for each ancestor
  • Have a complete list of information I was missing for each ancestor
  • Know exactly what resources I had checked and results of my research
  • Know every book I had ever searched
  • Remember who I had contacted and the responses I had received
  • Easily file new research findings

Here are some tips for getting — and staying — organized: Choose an organization system that genealogists use

Several popular organization systems exist for genealogy. Research these systems and use the one that fits your style and that you will actually use.

I have evaluated, started and subsequently abandoned several filing systems. My recommendation? I took a class from Mary E.V. Hill on a filing system, and I reorganized my genealogy using her color-coded filing system.

It is extremely flexible — the more ancestors you find, the more expandable and flexible the system becomes. It can be multi-generational and strictly linear at the same time. The system is simple to set up, simple to maintain, well-organized and inexpensive. It is easy to understand for the researcher and the mildly interested relatives alike. I can find anything in just a few seconds.

I have used the concepts to organize my paper files, computer files, and oral and personal history files. Free instructions using Hill's Color-coded Genealogy Research Filing System are available at (Click on the "Quick Helps" tab.)

Regularly merge and purge files

Once you have set up your filing system, you need to periodically purge duplicate items, remove unnecessary documents, make decisions about the contents, and move some items to another type of folder or container. After reviewing, sorting and purging information in the file folder, I make it a practice to ask myself, "What is missing that would help me be a better researcher?"

Keep source citation

Try to maintain a source citation for each document or item in the file so that you can verify the trail of your research. Make it a habit to have the citation available when writing the family history or when sharing this information with others. It will eliminate the time-consuming extra steps of going back to the original book, document, film or website to secure the source.

Include your handwritten notes

I have had the opportunity to interview many family members, some of whom are no longer living. I've made it a practice to include the interview notes (original or scanned) in the filing folders. You will find these notes to be pertinent to future research. If you have recorded an interview, include a transcript in the folder. All of these sources are important family documents.

Include five-generation group sheets

Genealogical computer programs provide many options for charts and reports. A good five-generation chart will quickly outline the relationship between family members. When I first started my research, I had many family group sheets that had been handwritten. I took the time to enter the information into my genealogy software.

Keep photocopies and digital images

As you conduct research, make it a practice to make photocopies or digital images (with your camera or scanner) of the key sources of your research. It provides proof, citation and clues for future research. Make it a practice to include the title page of your source. If the title page is missing, substitute the library catalog printout. As your research progresses, some of the images are no longer pertinent (not the right family) and should be purged.

Photographs require their own storage place

Genealogical file folders are not a good location to store family photographs. Take the time to learn about how to preserve and archive photos properly. After I scan or duplicate images, I have made it a practice to catalog and file the images so I can actively use them in my research. Where appropriate, I will place a copy of an image in the file folder. Because a large portion of my photographs are digital images, I have created a digital catalog, which is cross-referenced to the individuals, locations and the original.

Keep original documents in a safe place

Whenever possible, store original documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates under archival safe conditions. I have found that archival sleeves or file folders stored in an archival box are best. I place a reference photocopy in the appropriate folder of my filing system. I make it a practice to always scan these documents, which allows me to share this information with other family members and to use the digital image in family history research.

Create and file a cross-reference guide

For ease of access, I have created a cross-reference guide indicating which documents pertaining to each person or family are available in other folders. There is no reason to duplicate documents within the paper files, such as a marriage certificate or a census page. However, these documents and many others include multiple names, so it's helpful to have a cross-reference guide.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.