Organizing your records to optimize your genealogical research

One of the most valuable things you can do while researching your family tree is to properly organize your documents and notes.  This process will allow you to evaluate your resources, draw conclusions and identify discrepancies.  A reliable system of organization will not only be useful for referencing the data you have already incorporated into your family tree, it will also enable you to keep track of incorrect, dead-end or previously viewed sources.  As you amass more information, knowing which content you have already viewed will be an essential time saver.  Moreover, there may be instances where you will need to verify or revisit information by checking the original sources, and judiciously maintaining your records will make this feasible.  There are many tools and tips available to guide you in organizing your genealogical research.  I have found several methods particularly helpful in starting this process.  Ultimately, the most thorough approach is to use both an online software program and a paper filing system to back-up your research.

Create one binder for each family surname.  The most comprehensive investigation of your ancestors will often entail multiple branches within the same family or clusters of families.  You may also find that your ancestor’s neighbors are vital characters in your research.  In order to streamline the process, establish one binder for each family, consisting of a father, a mother and their children.  Create a section within the folder for each member of the family.  Each piece of paper in that folder should contain identifying information for that family member (name, birthdate, date of death etc.) to whom it pertains.  Insert a pedigree chart into each binder as a reference source.  There are dozens of pedigree charts online that can be downloaded and printed free of charge.

Keep track of documents. When possible, make a photocopy of every document concerning each family member.  On the front of each photocopy, identify the source.  On the back of each photocopy, transcribe a number that will serve as a reference number for your research log.  A research log is a detailed account of the sources you have searched and those that you intend to search for each of your ancestors.  If you are sharing your findings with other family members, a research log is a convenient means of exchanging information and notifying others of which resources were the most useful and conversely, which ones can be disregarded.  As with pedigree charts, there are multiple free research log templates available online.

Create digital files.  There are many advantages to using a computer to organize your records.  You will able to locate information easily; you can keep track of the resources you used in a more efficient manner; and finally, once you enter information, it can be used for various purposes by you and other family members (such as for pedigree charts, research logs and descendant charts).  Specialized software specifically designed for genealogy is a great tool for managing your family tree.  There are multiple options for programs, such as Family Tree Maker, The Master Genealogist and Personal Ancestral File (which is free to download).

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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