Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Get Organized Now

Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

When it comes to genealogy, I cannot begin to say how significantly important it is to be organized. This is truly a critical factor to successful genealogy. For beginning genealogists, it is important to begin and maintain a habit of organization.

The genealogy family tree grows exponentially. This is a literal statement, not metaphoric. With the discovery of each new generation, the number of family names being researched doubles. The amount of information being collected can very easily and quickly get out of hand. This in turn can affect the researcher’s ability to continue the search effectively.

In genealogy, there is no one particularly notable system of organization. Since people are different, fundamental organizational systems can vary from person-to-person according to what works uniquely for them. As long as the information is proven, the documentation can be shown, and the research and analysis is sound, genealogists can incorporate or create any system that works for them. Two key factors are key: 1. to have a system that allows for expanding information; 2. the research can be followed and picked up by others.

While there are many software or database types of genealogy programs to help organize and chart information, there are many materials and types of information that these systems cannot incorporate. Outside of genealogy software, examples of basic organizational tools are a computer, filing cabinet, copier/scanner/printer, digital camera, bag or briefcase for research materials on the go, etc. Notably with the computer, in addition to e-mail and an internet browser, a good word processing program is helpful for abstracting or transcribing information, writing detailed history or biography, keeping track of correspondence and research, etc.

Let me be clear, that when speaking of genealogy organization, I am not strictly talking about a filing system. There are multiple facets of genealogy that require organization. My experience has taught me that the entire genealogy process can be broken down into three components of organization. First, there is Stage 1, organization as part of the actual research. Stage 2 is a basic filing system. And Stage 3 is the final presentation.

In a little more detail, Stage 1 Organization - Research is broken into two parts. Part 1 is the organization during the actual research process in action. In other words, keeping good records during research by tracking what and where research is being conducted, and documenting the findings as they are discovered. Being able to cite sources is very important to genealogy, so documenting the research during the action of researching is significant. Part 2 is the research preparation. In other words, having a research plan or strategy. Analyzing and evaluating what is known, what has been found previously, and coordinating the next actions accordingly is an important part of research.

Stage 2 Organization - Filing is about document or information storage. Whether filing hardcopies and/or digital findings, there needs to be an organization system to make it easy to find the found sources and saved information, and refer back to them as needed. This includes letters and e-mail, photos, documents, etc. For example, most people find it easier to organize all research separately by the different family names, and then by the types of records or material, such as correspondence, photos, research documents, etc. Then organize the documents and information by separating them by locality or by record type, such as census records, land records, wills & probate, newspaper, parish registers, etc.

Lastly, Stage 3 Organization - Presentation is basically having a final presentation of the family history that can be shared with others, whether in a book, poster display, wall chart, photo album, scrap book, website, etc. The most common, and in-depth, is the writing, printing and publishing of the family history. In genealogy, there are several formal accepted genealogy writing styles and numbering systems. All the genealogy programs out there provide several writing and numbering options for a final presentation.

I know that organization is something beginning genealogists rarely think of as they excitedly delve into the research. Most beginning books and classes rarely cover organization as an element of genealogy in-depth. Unfortunately, the beginning genealogists discover on their own, the hard way, the necessity of being organized after they are already deeply buried in the research and documents found. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting and maintaining a habit of organization in the genealogy research process.