If you were to walk into my home office, you’ll see bookshelves filled with beautiful boxes and neat rows of binders, each labeled with a family surname. And you’d probably be thinking, “She’s got it all together.”

Things aren’t always as they appear. The pink floral boxes are items that need to be filed, the red boxes hold a project I’m working on for a friend, and yes, the binders are full of my ancestors’ research but aren’t in any way organized. Just last week, I opened a research folder on my computer and found more than 5,000 unnamed files, and I am by no means on top of my game with research lately. Imagine if they were in physical form! You get the idea. Well friends, it’s time for spring cleaning. 

Here are some tools to help:

Take charge of that paper. Whether you use binders, folders, or decorative boxes, my first suggestion is tame that pile of paper by organizing it in a way that works for you. I first separate by surname, then within that I have newspaper, military, birth records, death and cemetery records, and marriage. I put them in binders and when I have an hour, I choose a section to scan, organize, and put in sheet protectors. It’s less overwhelming this way. 

Go digital. Another way to reduce paper is to scan documents and photos. Scanned items get put in virtual binders/folders. About five years ago, I experienced major water damage in my office, so I now scan everything. I don’t have the heart to toss the original documents, so I keep both paper and digital copies of my research. 

When naming scanned items, be consistent and precise with file naming so a picture of Aunt Barbara picking apples named “Smith Family” doesn’t lead to an afternoon of frustration opening myriad files looking for the photo. Instead, “Smith Barbara Apples” will make future finding simpler. Begin each file name with a surname, then add a notation about content or location, e.g. “Smith Barbara Ireland,” and even a city or year if appropriate. 

Designate a workspace. Before setting up my home office, my dining room table doubled as Genealogy Central. I packed and unpacked my family research so often that something enjoyable became a chore. My solution was to store my research in a filing cabinet and tuck it in a closet. I then put my most used supplies and current research log in a large decorative tin in the dining room. Instead of having to pack and unpack, everything I needed was hidden in plain sight. 

Keep your desktops clean. It’s so easy to dump your research and walk away but this creates more work later. Take time each week to name and file new discoveries. Good habits are formed by repetition, and you’ll be surprised how time efficient you’ll be come with practice. 

Over time, every genealogist must face the intimidating task of organization. Not all methods work for everyone because we all have different habits, process, and workflow. Consider yours and find a method that works for you. If you’re not comfortable with a system, you won’t use it consistently. 


If you have a story, question, or idea for a future column, reach out to Carol at noellasdaughter@gmail.com. Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a National Genealogical Society member and Association of Professional Genealogists member. Carol is also Vice-President and Board Chairman of the Niagara County Genealogical Society. 


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