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The how to organize your genealogy stuff and find it fast method

Here's a brief rundown of my method to organize all of your genealogy information:

Many genealogy organization methods are too confusing, complicated, time consuming, or you have to do a complete overhaul of everything. Instead, try this great way to organize and keep track of your mounds of paperwork, notebooks, photos, piles, files, and shoe boxes that are filled with your genealogy and family history stuff. Here's how it works:

Supplies you will need:

  • ONE 1 or 1-1/2 inch notebook for your "Key Index Notebook."
  • Page dividers that you can label in your "Key Index Notebook."
  • NUMBERED page dividers for any genealogy notebooks that you have.
  • BLANK labels to put "numbered references" on any existing genealogy notebooks, hanging file folders, regular files folders, crates, shoe boxes, etc.

Here is how easy it can be...

Leave all of your genealogy stuff where it is right now.

Don't change a thing. If you keep your genealogy things in notebooks and filing cabinets, that is fine. If you like to store your stuff in crates and shoe boxes, that is okay too. If it is all jumbled together and needs to be sorted out, please DON'T do it. Just leave it alone.

Instead, go to wherever you store your genealogy stuff and NUMBER the storage containers. If it is in notebooks, stick a label on a notebook and write "Notebook 1" on it. Then take the next one, stick a label on it, and write "Notebook 2" on it, and so on.

NOTE: Take out any existing page dividers that are in your notebooks and replace them with numbered page dividers. Examples: Dividers 1 through 12, or 1 through 25, or whatever your preference.

The same applies to your filing cabinets. Stick a label on each drawer and call them "Drawer 1" and "Drawer 2," etc. It also applies to any boxes you have ("Box 1" and "Box 2").

NOTE: Numbering your hanging file folders 1 through 25 or 1 through 50 PER drawer works well. This means that both the drawer itself and the hanging folders inside the drawer are numbered. If you use regular file folders instead of hanging file folders, that is okay as well. Start sticking numbered labels on them.

If you want to put regular file folders INSIDE of the hanging folders, it can be done, but it starts to get confusing with this method. This was an option in the guide that people had trouble with. It will be easier to choose EITHER all regular file folders and number them (you can easily go up to 50 or 75 per drawer), or choose all hanging file folders and number them.

Decide now. Do you want to use the hanging folders or the regular folders? If you already have all hanging file folders, go with them.

If all your stuff is in shoe boxes, label them "Shoe Box 1" and "Shoe Box 2." You get the idea. Everything stays where it is even if it is unorganized, but it is critical that EVERY storage container (file cabinet drawer, file folders, notebooks, boxes, etc.) gets numbered.

Your Key Index Notebook: You label the page dividers (or "tabs") in this special notebook with WORDS, not numbers. This depends on the surnames (last names) you are researching and the places that they came from.

For example, I am focusing on my RAGAN line in my personal research. My ancestors come from Florida, Georgia, and nearby states, and the line goes back to Ireland.

Here are 8 tabs in my Key Index Notebook:

  • RAGAN, FL - This is for my RAGAN line in Florida.
  • RAGAN, GA - I also have lots of information from Georgia.
  • RAGAN - This is for RAGANs in all other areas (like Ireland).
  • WAINWRIGHT - This is another surname line.
  • HILLHOUSE - Another one of my lines.
  • JONES - Here is a common-named line I am researching.
  • MISC - This is for miscellaneous surnames.
  • INFO - This is for general genealogy information (how to, charts, reference material, etc.).

Remember, these are MY tabs. You will set yours up differently. However, I do suggest that you have a MISC and INFO tab of your own. You can have 12 tabs or more if you'd like, but try to keep it under 12.

So consider all of YOUR stuff. What is in those notebooks and file cabinets anyway? Do you have a lot of information on a certain surname? It will probably get a tab in your Key Index Notebook. You may, or may not, decide to have more than one tab for the same surname that specifies a place (like I did with FL and GA).

I have enough materials about the RAGAN line in Florida to justify having the RAGAN FL tab. Do you have enough genealogy materials about one of your lines from a certain area to do this? If so, you might consider this "Surname/Place" approach for some of your tabs. Or maybe you will wind up with only 4 or 5 tabs in your Key Index Notebook if you do not have much stuff. That is fine too.

When you have everything that your genealogy materials are stored in (notebooks, file cabinets, boxes, etc.) numbered and have decided on the names of the page dividers (or tabs) in your Key Index Notebook, it is time for the magic of this method to work for you...

The organization of all of your genealogy stuff happens on paper, in the pages of your Key Index Notebook. You can type these pages on your computer or write them out by hand. Either way will work fine. The KEY is: Everything happens in your Key Index Notebook.

All of the storage containers that your material is in
are just a "numbered reference" to point to.

For example, you don't have to categorize and sort out all of that paperwork in that file cabinet drawer (which is now labeled "Drawer 1" and has numbered labels that you stuck on the file folders that were already in it). You are going to do all of the organizing on paper in your Key Index Notebook. Here is how that would work:

  • You open your "Drawer 1." This is the same old file cabinet that you had last week, with the same old stuff in it. The only difference is that there are now labels with numbers on them stuck on the same old file folder.
  • You take folder number 1 out of Drawer 1. You go over and sit down with your Key Index Notebook and start to INDEX THE CONTENTS of folder 1. It doesn't matter what is in there, but let's say that these items are in folder 1.
  • Copies from an old family Bible on your--for the sake of example--GREER line. It was owned by Mary Greer. This is one of the main lines you are researching and you have a GREER tab in your Key Index Notebook. So you write down "Bible records: Mary D1,F1 (Drawer 1, Folder 1). Then you stick those copies back in the folder and pull out...
  • Some old photographs from that same GREER line. It is a photo of Joseph and Lila Greer. Again you go to your Key Index Notebook and look under the GREER tab and write down "Photos: Joseph and Lila D1, F1." This is in the same folder as the first record was, so it gets the same reference. Then you look again in folder 1 and find...
  • A print out of the Treasure Maps e-mail newsletter from 1996. There was a good article on photo preservation that you liked, and for whatever reason, stuck in the folder that has been changed to "Folder 1." Hmm... you go to the INFO (or you may want it under MISC) tab in your Key Index Notebook. You write down "Treasure Maps, Photo preservation D1, F1."

Do you see how this works? All the indexing and organizing is on paper in the various sections of your Key Index Notebook. In this example, there was a copy of an old Bible record and photographs on the GREER line in folder 1 that got indexed under the GREER tab. Also in folder 1, there was an article which got indexed under the INFO (or MISC) tab.

The SAME stuff goes back into the SAME folder. Then you move on to folder 2 and index the contents of it just like you did with the first folder. Then you will move on to folder 3. What will be the reference numbers for anything in folder 3? It will be "Type of item, D1, F3." The type of item (records, photos, notes, charts, print outs from the Internet, or whatever), D1 for Drawer 1, and F3 for folder 3.

Are you catching on to the way this works? The beauty of this method is that you can find what you have indexed very fast. All you have to do is open your Key Index Notebook and it will send you directly to the File drawer and folder number, or genealogy notebook and section number.

Here are two suggestions:

1. For the surname tabs in your Key Index Notebook: You can write the topic heading as you go. In our GREER example, the topic headings were "Photos" and "Bible Records." Or you can type up some generic topic headings on a few sheets of paper and put them under each surname tag in your Key Index Notebook.

Here are some that you might use:

Bible records: Biographies, Birth, Cemetery, Census, Church, Correspondence, Court, Death, E-mail, Emigration or Immigration. Family History Center, Internet print outs, Land/Property, Letters, Diaries and Journal, Marriage, Naturalization and Citizenship, Newspaper, Notes, Periodicals, Photographs and Negatives, OTHER records. You can make or use any topic headings that you want, but these are common to genealogy research.

2. For crates and boxes of stuff: Let's say you have not just a shoe box--but a LARGE box full of photographs. To put only "Box 1" with no other numbered reference would still require a lot of digging if you want to find a certain photograph. I suggest getting some large envelopes and start putting the photos in the envelopes. Then you would number the envelopes and put them all back into the large box.

Note: You do not have to sort through all of those photos; just stuff them in the numbered envelopes and put them back in the box. You will index those envelopes, one at a time at your own leisure. So in the future, when you are looking for that photo that you need to find in a hurry, you will be able to find it fast. It will be listed in your Key Index Notebook.

You can keep anything, anywhere, as long as it has a numbered reference and it is indexed and listed in your Key Index Notebook. This is how everything is organized on paper and the actual records can just stay where they are--even unorganized. You will do your indexing a little at a time, when you feel like it. Can you imagine reorganizing a four drawer filing cabinet loaded with papers? How long will that project take (hint, twice as long as you thought it would)?

With this numbered reference method, you can do it bit by bit when you feel like it, so in reality, it is more likely to get done.

This works best for paper records and things that you print. You can number your 3-1/2 inch computer disks and index things in your Key Index Notebook. But the new PAJAMA Genealogy System has an even better way to organize and retrieve your computer and electronic data (information off the Internet and e-mail) with what I call electronic genealogy "storage files".

So start numbering your file cabinets, folders, and boxes; and set up your Key Index Notebook. This is a wonderful way to manage your existing records.

My Very Best to You and Yours,


Robert Ragan


Copyright 1995-2007 by Robert Ragan - All Rights Reserved.