Updated: Jan 11, 2021
When I began my historical journey into my family's genealogy in the early 1990s I felt organized with my 1 inch forest green 3-ring binder and my pocket dividers for each of my grandparent's direct descendants. Little did I know then, my research would outgrow that little binder (which I still have) and I would take my passion for history and individual stories of the past and turn it into a career that I love. So nearly 30 years later, I am mastering the art of organizing my genealogy records by organizing how I research in the first place.
Looks fairly well organized and cataloged, doesn't it? I took this picture at a library in Scranton, Pennsylvania while visiting a couple of years ago. I shudder at the thought of trying to complete research in such an area where one wrong step could lead to mayhem and disaster. And yet my office currently resembles this remark. So here's how to organize your research process which will allow you to have more organized record keeping.
What's your Goal? You wouldn't take a vacation without planning a few things first, right? 'Where shall I go?' 'Where will I stay?' and 'What do I want to see/do?' being just a few of the questions you might ask yourself. Researching your family history should begin the same with questions like 'Where was Grandpa Joe born?' 'Who was the father of Mark Robert Johannes?' or 'When was Alice Scott married?' Once you have a solid research question, you can determine who you are researching, what time period you need to search, where in the world you need to look for records or documentation, what records might contain the information you are searching for, and how to access those records.
Where to Start? Anyone who has dabbled in researching their family will tell you to search for the all important vital (and not so vital) records that we all create during our lifetime, birth, marriage and death. While very important to helping us form a better picture of our ancestors, these records just scratch the surface of what is out there waiting to be found. (And to be quite honest, are pretty boring by themselves.) Professional Genealogists will tell you to start with what you know (or know is close by). Hunt in those attics & basements to find all the pieces of history put away by your ancestors. Here's a true story, my father gave my 4 year old niece a copy of his hospital birth record, complete with his baby footprints for Christmas this past year. I have NEVER seen this document before, in over thirty years of researching my family. He, of course, assumed I had a copy. (I will soon!) Once you establish your base knowledge, start tackling those other records. Church, Federal, State and Local, military and land records are a good place to start. Don't stop there. School, tax, probate, court, immigration, cemetery and mortuary records hold a wealth of information. Likewise, newspapers, legal notices, employment and institutional records can be used along with compiled sources (such as county histories or published or unpublished works on a particular surname). You want to uncover the story behind the dates of your ancestor's lives.
How I stay Organized
Several years ago I upgraded my green binder with my family group sheets & pedigree charts to include numerous other forms and charts to track my research progress (both positive and negative results ~ more on this in a later blog). There is nothing more disconcerting than going to file a great new record that you just found, only to find that you found it years ago and just hadn't cataloged it. No one likes to waste time when you could be hunting for new to you information. Here are a few websites that I recommend you take a look at for saving you time and creating a more organized historical record of your family:
https://www.ancestry.com/cs/census-forms (I wish I would have transcribed the census records for my family groups early on. These forms make it a breeze to compare the US decennial census for different families.) US 1790-1940, UK 1841-1911, Canadian 1851, 1901, 1906, & 1911.
https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Genealogy_Research_Forms (Lots more census templates, but the real gem here are The Bailey's Free Genealogy Forms) Family record sheets help keep family data together, pedigree charts help map out your research progress, timelines help establish a check and balance for your research (how many of you have seen an online tree where a child is miraculously born prior to its parents?), and one of my favorites, cemetery forms where you can map out and capture information for multiple gravestones.
https://www.familytreemagazine.com/freeforms (Last but not least, 61 Free Genealogy Forms) Check out the Research Trackers and Organizers for ways to keep your research and results from taking over your work space.
Above all, start where you are most comfortable and stay the course. Annotate those rabbit holes you find while in pursuit of the answer to your research question but don't do a deep dive until you are ready to start with a new question. Copy down the information you'll need to get back to it, and return to your question at hand.
Interested in learning more? Join me at the Anythink Brighton Library, 327 E Bridge St, Brighton, CO 80601 on January 14, 2020 at 6 pm for Getting Started With Genealogy, space is limited; reservations recommended. Click here to register or call 303-405-3230.