The Suitcase: Getting Started One Paper at a Time
Are you the lucky recipient of your family’s genealogy? Do you have a box, a barrel, or in my instance a suitcase full of letters, documents, photos, family group sheets, etc? You are probably feeling overwhelmed with either joy or despair. Go ahead and be ecstatic that you inherited priceless stuff. Don’t despair because I’m going to show you how to take care of your papers, one step at time.
When I started my genealogical journey in 2003, I met my parents at the airport on their way to Hawaii. My dad handed me a suitcase full of thirty years of genealogy. He hadn’t taken hold of computer technology, so none of the papers were scanned or entered into a database. My parents had organized some of them into file folders but many were loose papers. I had no idea what I had inherited or how to get started using it.
Luckily, I attended a family history fair at our local church a few days later and took some classes from people who gave me pointers on dealing with papers. Fast forward a few months and I had entered every scrap of information into my computer database, discarded useless papers, filed important papers using a system that made sense to me, and figured out where I needed to start my research. Nicole joined me in searching for records and we were off and running. Now my papers looked like this, nice and neat in file folders.
I’ve since added a couple more file boxes and it’s time to go through those folders again. In a truly digital world, I need to make sure all my papers are scanned, saved where I can find them, and uploaded to online trees so I can share information with others. I’ve been dreading making the transition and going through my files, but those papers are not going to sort themselves.
Whether you’re starting from scratch with a pile of papers or transitioning your paper files to digital, here are some tips to tame your papers.
- Sort: Do a quick sort to divide the papers into piles according to families. Don’t be concerned about generations at this point, just sort by surname. The point here is to create some sort of order out of the mess. If you already have your papers in a filing system, you can skip this step!
- Choose a database where you will be entering the information you discover. This could be an online tree at Ancestry, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, or Family Search. It could also be a personal database such as FamilyTreeMaker, RootsMagic, Legacy, or AncestralQuest. If you’re not sure what to use, download the free versions and see which seems most intuitive to you. From now on, I’ll refer to this as “your database”. Make sure you have one place where only you can edit the information. Don’t just rely on the FamilySearch Family Tree. Other well meaning “cousins” can easily do some editing and possibly lose your information. Several of the above databases sync with FamilySearch FamilyTree so you can always add your information there, then sync it with your personal database. No need to enter data twice.
- Create an electronic filing system on your computer for your documents. I like to use Google Drive, then my documents are available on all of my devices. You could also use Dropbox or another cloud based program. I recommend keeping a copy of your filing system on your computer’s hard drive and backing that up to an external hard drive. Multiple storage makes for happiness when something goes wrong! I organize my computer files by surname, then the individual’s name. Each person mentioned in the the document gets a copy of that document in their folder.
- Create a paper filing system for photographs, letters, certificates, and other documents. This would include any scenario where you want to keep the original after scanning. You could do this by surname, family, or use a numbering system, whatever makes sense to you.
- Choose one paper. Look it over carefully. Try to understand what it means and what information it holds and for whom. Look up the person on the free FamilySearch FamilyTree or an online tree such as Ancestry.com to see if you can learn more about this person.
- Make a decision: Once you’ve checked out that paper, decide what to do with it. Don’t be tempted to put it aside and deal with it later. You can decide to:
- Throw the paper away. Only do this if it is obviously of no use or a duplicate record.
- Locate the document online. If it is a census or other record that has been digitized, save a copy to your computer files and add the information to your database.
- Scan all photos or documents that aren’t already available digitized online, then save a copy to your computer files and add the information to your database. Add the document to your paper files if it’s something you want to keep.
- Create a source using that document as evidence in your database. For help with creating a source in FamilySearch Family tree see my post here. When you create a source, you also create a citation explaining what the source is, where you found it, etc. For help in understanding citations, see my post here.
- Add the paper to your research files. If this is a paper to help you with research like a map, letter, family group sheet, you can create a file for it in your paper files or scan it and create a folder in your electronic filing system such as “Texas Research”. For research items, I like to add them to Evernote. I have a notebook for my mother’s line and a notebook for my father’s line. All research type items go into one of these notebooks and gets lots of tags. For help in using Evernote for genealogy, see Colleen Greene’s post. Another great blog post with lots of links for using Evernote is Janet Berkman’s post.
For an example, I’m going to deal with the papers in my “Shults – Indian Territory” file. Number one in my file is a photocopy of an original marriage license. I’m definitely not going to throw it away! I look online at Ancestry and FamilySearch and find that the marriage license has not been digitized. I will need to scan and upload this document. I’m going to create a new paper file titled “Shults Documents” to hold this original marriage record. In my electronic filing system, a scanned copy of the document will be in the files for both George Albert Wells and Lou Anna Shults.
The next paper in my file is the 1900 U.S. Federal Census of Indian Territory. This is an easy one. The U.S. census records are available multiple places online. Once I make sure this census is attached to the correct families in my database and I have the image saved to the electronic filing system on my computer, I can throw away this piece of paper.
This list of all the Shults marriages in Indian Territory from 1895-1907 is a little tricky. I may want to reference this again but I don’t want to save it to every individual on the list because I haven’t researched each of them. I think I’ll look up the website and save this record to Evernote in my Shults research notebook. There it will be easily accessible and searchable. If I save it as a PDF, Evernote can also search every word in the document. I can add a to-do item to my list in Evernote to finish researching the other individuals.
I continue taking care of each paper in my “Shults: Indian Territory” file and when I’m done I have reduced my paper load from six documents to two. I only save the two paper copies of marriages, all the other papers can be recycled! I can now retire that paper folder knowing each document has been digitized, saved electronically, and added to my database.
If you have lots of papers, either in a suitcase or file folders, the task may seem overwhelming. But remember, all you need to do is one paper at a time! Once your system is set up, you will feel great and you will work fast and efficiently.
Best of luck in your organizing endeavors!