Order Out of Chaos: Organizing Your Genealogy Research

January 31, 2013 | Stacey

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Lately, a fair number of people I talk to are dabbling in researching their family history. Those of you who are seasoned genealogists already know how crucial it is to organize your findings as you progress. Each discovery leads to new pieces of information, and each individual bit of information might take you in multiple directions. If you’re just beginning to delve into genealogical research, you’ll soon discover that your records, documents, and notes on bits of scrap paper are multiplying faster than seems possible. Plus, if multiple people in your family have the same name, your paperwork and notes will inevitably become a jumble of ‘who’s who?’ confusion.

Whether you’re a novice taking your first steps into uncovering your family history, or an expert looking for some new ways to organize your findings, here are a few suggestions for getting your genealogical ducks in a row.

One of the key decisions to make is whether to organize your documents on paper, or on your computer, or online (or, perhaps, all three). Whatever method you choose, organized file storage is essential. You’ll want to name your folders and files using a consistent style, and structure your folders, sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders (and so on!) in an organized way so that you don’t end up misplacing important documents or notes.

On Paper

AncestryIf you wish to conduct the bulk of your research on paper, you’ll need to work with organizational forms. Ancestry.ca (Library Edition) is a leading genealogical database that you can access from any Toronto Public Library computer. Ancestry.ca features a variety of printable forms and charts to help you organize your information, including ancestral and family group charts, census forms, and correspondence records.

FamilysearchAnother important source for finding ancestral information is Family Search, a nonprofit family history organization operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Visit the Family Search Getting Started guide to view instructional videos and to download pedigree charts and family group records for printing.

Some books about researching family history include various types of forms. You might want to take a look at one of our many genealogical research books that contain sample forms. These forms may be photocopied and used freely--as long as they’re solely used for personal research and not published in printed works. Here are some examples of books that feature forms:

Carmack Dollarhide
Organizing your Family History Search: Efficient & Effective Ways to Gather and Protect your Genealogical Research
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
Managing a Genealogical Project: A Complete Manual for the Management and Organization of Genealogical Materials
William Dollarhide


On Your Computer

If, however, you prefer to document your findings on your computer, look into family history software such as Family Tree Maker or Legacy Family Tree. This may be helpful if you plan to track your work on a single computer. If you decide to invest in this type of software, we have instruction manuals in our collection that will help to ensure you’re making the most of your software:

Pederson Clifford
The Official Guide to Family Tree Maker 2010
Tana L. Pederson
The Complete Beginner's Guide to Genealogy, the Internet, and your Genealogy Computer Program
Karen Clifford


In the Cloud

If you’re a tablet or mobile phone user, you might even consider using apps that will allow you to save your information “in the cloud,” i.e., stored online so that you can access your data across different computers and mobile devices.

What Works for YOU?

These are just a few ideas, but there are many other possibilities. And remember, what works for one person won’t necessarily be effective for everyone, so the most important goal is to find a system that works for you. Think about what you’re trying to achieve, and work towards creating a planning system that will help you, not frustrate you. And be creative! Maybe you’ll want to try:

Do you have any tips for effectively organizing your family history research? What are your favourite genealogical resources for getting (and staying!) organized?