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Organizing Your Family Records


A Filing System

Once you begin collecting information you need to organize it or:

  • You’ll waste time searching through stacks of papers at home,
  • You won’t remember which sources you’ve searched, and
  • You’ll never see your dining room table again.

In previous editions of this book, I told genealogists how to set up a paper filing system. In the event you’re a young person and don’t remember “old-time” filing systems, they consisted of file folders, file labels, hanging file folders, papers, charts, filing cabinets, etc. Well, don’t do that. (Not as your primary way of keeping track of your genealogy information. You’ll still need some folders for hard copies of documents.)

The very best way to organize your genealogy is to use specialized software for the purpose. I recommend Family Tree Maker. The current version is 2009. Is it the “best” program? Not necessarily, but it’s the one with the most users. Since FTM 2008, the program is newly-built from the ground up, not a remodeled version of previous incarnations of the program.

FTM isn’t the only good genealogy software on the market. The Master Genealogist is probably the “best” software available, but it isn’t easy to learn. Listen for  recommendations from your genealogy friends.

There is a disadvantage to FTM. The parent company telemarkets. They want to sell you expensive subscriptions to Ancestry.com. And your subscription includes automatic renewals (credit-card bill surprise!). Before you make a subscription commitment, curb your enthusiasm and decide how much time you’re planning to devote to this new hobby. Don’t sign up for services you don’t use regularly. Ancestry.com offers a free trial of their online sources. Activate it only when you’ve arranged to call in sick at work for two weeks or a month—whatever the trial period is.

Take your laptop to the library and use Ancestry’s services there. This assumes your available leisure hours coincide with the library’s hours of operation and, with gasoline prices like they are, that you’ll ride your bicycle to and from. Better idea: cancel your DirecTV premium channels and apply the money to an Ancestry.com subscription. Use a virtual credit card number to sign up. You know about those, don’t you? Your “real” card number is cloaked and the pseudo-number has the dollar limit and expiration date you set for it. There won’t be an automatic renewal on that number. (Virtual credit card numbers are a good idea for any kind of Internet purchase. Go to your credit card’s website and put “virtual numbers” in the information search box. Learn how!)

If you’re really on a restricted budget, there’s a very good free—really free (no advertising)—genealogy program. Personal Ancestral File is a free download from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There are drawbacks to computerizing your genealogical research:

  • If you don’t back up your files and store them off-site and online, you could lose it all in one awful hard disc crash.
  • If you dump everything into the program without citing your sources you can add to the world burden of “genie-mythology” that is, a massive amount of information with no idea where it came from.

The advantages, however, are tremendous. So if you’ll learn to make frequent backups and always take the time to include sources as you enter data, you’ll enjoy the organization genealogy software can provide.

You’ll still need a paper filing system to save hard copies of some documents. Scan documents as you acquire them and link them to data in FTM with the “media task pane." Then file them in labeled folders in a system that makes sense to you.

If you need paper forms to take with you for some event beyond the range of your laptop’s battery, download some from several websites that offer them free. Google: free genealogy forms.

To read a really interesting book on the topic, see Ann Carter Fleming’s The Organized Family Historian: How to File, Manage, and Protect Your Genealogical Research and Heirlooms.

Successful Data Entry

Open Family Tree Maker or whatever software you’ve chosen. Start with yourself and begin entering names, dates, and places. And sources. If you know the information from having been there, enter yourself as the source. Otherwise, always say how you know what you know. If your mother told you about the event (such as your birth), she’s the source you cite. Whatever you look at or listen to is your source and you identify that source that in your genealogy program.

Enter women with the names they were born with—their “maiden” names. If you don’t know their maiden names, enter only their first names. (“Grandma” is not a first name.)

Leave off courtesy titles (Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Dr., Rev., etc.) in name fields. Put that information in the note fields.

Do enter suffixes like Jr., Sr., III, etc., in the name fields.

Do not enter surnames (last names) in all upper-case letters. Yes, perhaps you’ve seen advice to the contrary on this one. But it’s old-fashioned and outdated. I was in a library many, many years ago. A history professor was at the next table reading an article in a periodical primarily devoted to genealogy topics. “Why are the last names all in capital letters?” he asked. “Oh, yes,” he answered his own question, “Genealogists don’t read articles, they just raid them for names.” Ouch! When you eventually publish your family history and use data from your genealogy software, it’ll look funny with surnames set in upper-case type. Don’t do it.

Genealogy software will standardize dates. FTM 2009 will also standardize place names. The magic word, jurisdiction, comes into play here. Since many of the records genealogists use are filed at the county level, place-name entry needs to include the county. Think from larger entity to smaller on this one. “USA” is the country, then the state, then county, and then local name, if there is one. And the format is the same for foreign countries—from country to smaller political divisions.

Consistency is the key to good data entry.

Organizing Digital Files

Scan your old photos and the photos you discover as you find family members with collections. Do the same for documents. There are two good ways to capture these images. Use a flat-bed scanner or a good digital camera. (My definition of a “good” digital camera is a single-lens-reflex digital Nikon or Canon.) — See more about equipment in the Genealogist’s Toy Box chapter.

Scan photos and documents at no less than 300 dpi. Use the “color” setting on the scanner even for black-and-white documents. Set your digital camera to save images as .raw files, then save those as .jpgs to work on and keep the .raw file as though it were a negative.

Organize folders on your computer in a way that makes sense to you.

When you receive an e-mail with important information, use the "save as" function to store that e-mail in the appropriate family folder.

Make backups of your photo and document files on archival CDs. If you think all CD media is created equal, there’s a surprise in store for you at MAM-A, Inc.’s website.

Use the “Media” task pane in FTM 2009 and make links to images stored on your computer.

When you’re ready to back up your FTM 2009 files, you can choose to back up only the data, not the attached media files. It’ll make your backup files much smaller. Be sure to backup all of your files regularly!

The best book to read about organizing your digital files is Organize Your Digital Life: How to Store Your Photographs, Music, Videos, and Personal Documents in a Digital World by Aimee Baldridge (National Geographic Society, 2009). (See details about it on Amazon.com.)


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