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How to Organize Your Genealogy

Organizing always seems to be a hot topic and although I've written on my system in the past, it's buried down at the bottom of my blog posts and hasn't gotten a lot of attention. Rather than just referring to it, I'm re-posting it today with some updates. If you follow me on Facebook, over the weekend I shared a post from Family Tree Magazine on "9 Habits of Highly Organized Genealogists." Just so you know, I don't count myself among the highly organized so I'm always interested in how other people do it! Part of my problem is that I'm usually preparing for a lecture, doing consultations, answering emails, or trying to come up with a topic for a blog, so working on my own genealogy takes a back seat. Therefore I tend to end up with piles! Usually I work on my own family when I get a query or a DNA match contacts me. Sometimes I think, I've seen that must be in one of the piles. A burst of focused energy might go into separating the big pile into smaller piles until I find what I'm looking for. I'm not proud of this, but that's the way it is. Usually, when this happens, I work to "straighten out" that set of files. It's a slow process since I've been collecting information since the early 1990s. I have a four drawer lateral file cabinet and three 2-drawer lateral cabinets...all stuffed with files. When we built our house in 2012 I had a walk in closet built in my office which contains most of the file cabinets and shelves, along with a tall bookcase. The picture above is what it looks like about once a year (usually right after New Year) when I vow to "get organized."

   There are lots of methods of organizing your research. You might want to check out Drew  Smith’s book, Organize Your Genealogy: Strategies and Solutions for Every Researcher or just google “organizing genealogy.”  Google said there were 2.4 million results! The beauty of Drew’s book is that it isn’t just about filing systems…it’s a way to organize everything, from your workspace, to your goals, to your projects.  Another place to check is CyndisList. Between the book, the google results and CyndisList you can get some great ideas but you need to pick the one that works for you. Let me talk a little about my method which I’ve used for many years.  

   I outgrew the Binder system pretty quickly, I'm not into color-coding and found filing by name was overwhelming when I tried to find a particular Bernard Moughty. I settled on an Ahnentafel system (if you read the article from Family Tree Magazine, it's number 8) very early on.  If you’re not familiar with what that is, it's the numbering system used on a pedigree chart…you are number 1, your father is number 2,  your mother is number 3, etc.  Each male direct ancestor is double the number of the previous generation and his wife is double plus 1.  It is easy to figure out what the ancestor number is.  The paternal third great grandfather would be 32 (2, 4, 8, 16, 32).  You just need to double the preceding generation, the fourth great would be 64.  This works for anyone in your pedigree.  If my father is 6, then the generations back go 6, 12, 24, 48, 96, etc. Just to claify, the reason my father is 6 instead of 4 is because my pedigree chart starts with my children as 1a, 1b, 1c, my husband is 2 and I'm 3, so double that number and my dad is 6.  What I like about this system is that if you come to missing ancestor, the space is always there should you find information in the future.  My grandfather Frank Mitchell #12 (aka Fedor Mylytczuk) emigrated from the Ukraine.  I have the names of his parents, #24/25 from his marriage license, but I have nothing past that.  So for now, there is no #48/49, #50/51 but should I find information, the files will drop right into place.  I also have an English line and the farthest number back I have is 896/897 (which dates to the late 1600s). I've worked on families with early Colonial ancestry (including my son-in-law who is a Mayflower Descendant through John Alden and Priscilla Mullin (8192/8193). Most of us with primarily Irish Ancestry are not going to get back that far😀 and because I have so many Irish lines, there are a lot of blank numbers. Keep a copy of your Pedigree Chart handy to help you visualize your family. Your genealogy software can print one out for you, or you can handwrite one. If you need a blank form, click here.

My file cabinet is set up with hanging files numbered 1a, 1b, 1c which are my three daughters, then each file is set up for a couple: 2/3 Brian Moughty/Donna Mitchell; 4/5 Bernard Moughty/Catherine Daly, etc.  You’ll notice that this system is for direct ancestral lines and are probably wondering about collateral lines (especially since I write so often about cluster genealogy and searching everyone in the family). I file the children outside of the direct line with their parents, numbered by their birth order in file folders.  So if couple 30/31 had three children, the middle of which is my direct ancestor, I would put information about their other children in paper file folders inside the parents' hanging folder marked 30/31-1 Clara and 30/31-3 Buna.

    The benefit of this system is that I know where to file; the downside is that typically I’m in a hurry or need to quickly clean off my desk and things get put into piles.  I vow to do better.  As part of my purging/organizing in 2019 I took all of the papers that needed to be filed and put them in one place (well they were in one place when I started).  I decided to spend at least a half hour each day going through these papers, making sure the information was in my database and either scanning the papers or filing them (that lasted for about a week)! 

I am in better shape than I was two years ago. Over the past 100 days as I've quarantined I've actually worked through some piles. If we have a DNA connection or have corresponded, the files are likely to be in better shape, but I still have a lot of work to do and need to get to it! I'm concerned about what would happen to all of my work should I get hit by a bus! I'm sure my children would simply cremate my file cabinets with me.    Next week I’ll discuss converting these paper files to digital.

Happy Hunting and Stay Safe!

Father's Day is in a few weeks, which means that DNA companies are starting to announce sales. Check out the Promotions Page for the latest pricing.

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