Genealogy Sleuth Work: Choices for Organizing


Most genealogists change organizing systems at some point in an effort to refine and strengthen their ability to find things. Therefore, there are at least twice as many systems as there are genealogists. However, certain constants pervade these systems. We generally divide our files according to surname, then location. After that, the individualism takes over.

Everybody keeps their stuff somewhere. Omitting the dining room table as a viable option, many use a filing cabinet or file boxes with a folder for each person. For years, I had no money or space for a filing cabinet, so I needed something different. Alas, I did have a dining room table, for a while, but I also had bookcases.

Learning from my own mistakes in the first few months of research, I realized that spiral notebooks, even when subject-divided and indexed, are not the answer to organizing genealogy; there had to be a better way. Thus, my choice was and remains three-ring binders. I begin with one binder for each surname, divided into sections by state or county. As the binder fills, it can be divided into several notebooks for that surname in particular states or counties, depending on the situation of the individual family: Bennett - Louisiana, or Coleman - Cumberland County, Virginia. Using binders of consistent size leads to consistent use of the same size paper. The 8 1/2i" X 11" (21.6cm X 27.9cm) size also conveniently matches paper size from photocopy machines.

The same principles work with organization systems using file folders. We divide by surname or full name: one folder per surname or per individual. Then we divide by location.

As the search progresses, each state or county binder is organized into sections by category: research plans, reference materials and maps, family charts, correspondence, state and county history, and types of records - census, land, marriage, tax, probate, cemetery, etc. The combining of like records helps me because I look for a given piece of information according to the type of record in which it occurred. In other words, I think in terms of deeds, cemeteries, marriage records, letters, etc. These divisions also allow me to keep track of several generations or siblings as they interact with each other, with a minimum of cross-referencing or filing copies of a document in several folders or notebooks.

Almost any adequate filing system means that each page of notes deals with only one surname. Some researchers speed up their note taking with laptop computers. If I did that, I would have to print out the notes for study and evaluation. Maybe it is a generational attitude, but I study data better when I can see my original note pages, document copies, and charts spread out all at once.

My other motivation for using binders is time. When I return home from research, I do not have time to transcribe notes or file pages in individual folders. I take the notebook(s) for the day's efforts to the research facility and put the notes right into the notebook section where they belong, and the filing is done. It works for me, and it allows me to use the dining room table for other things.
For more on organizing your genealogy, see Organizing Your Family History Search by Sharon De- Bartolo Carmack (Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 1999).

Some people feel that a computer is all they need for taking notes and storing material. Of course, thousands use genealogy software that links related individuals and prints out many useful and interesting charts. The use of this software is not what we mean by organizing. This software use is more for storage and presentation of completed research once it is known to be accurate.

     Emily Anne Croom, "Genealogy Sleuth Work: Choices for Organizing," extracted from The Sleuth Book for Genealogists: Strategies for More Successful Family History Research, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008), Chapt. 1, pp. 5-6; digital edition, ( : posted 26 Jul 2012)

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