Organizing Your Genealogy Documents

Courtesy of Amazon.com

You’ve heard of Marie Kondo and Swedish Death Cleaning. You probably have participated in Spring Cleaning. If you’re like me, you never gave much thought to cleaning and organizing your genealogical treasures.

I originally set up my genealogical documents in paper file folders, all of the same, manilla flavor by surname, and filed the paperwork in a bottom desk drawer. When I first began accumulating paperwork back in the 1980s I didn’t have many pieces of paper so the system worked if I needed a quick retrieval. Those were early computer days – no cell phone and no home internet.

Life has changed dramatically tech wise since then and spilled over to genealogy. You’d think computers would have made fewer papers but I have not found that to be the case. By the mid-1990s I joined America Online and began connecting with distant kin scattered around the world. The family began snail mailing me copies of their records so my manilla file system became stuffed. I moved to color-coded file folders with everyone with the same surname getting the same color folder individualized by the first name. I moved from housing the collection in a desk drawer to a small file cabinet.

The generation older than mine began to pass and younger family members deemed me the archivist so I began to assume more documents. I’ve blogged about receiving boxes left on my doorstep and photos mailed to me. I outgrew the file cabinet and was concerned about how I was historically preserving the items.

I invested in acid-free sleeves to house the growing hoard and in hindsight, should have monetarily invested in the companies that make archival products as I bought loads of them. I moved from file folders to binders that I placed upright on a shelf in my office closet.

As the internet took off so did my collections. I began printing interesting items I discovered with the intent that one day (ah-hem) I’d look into that rabbit hole more closely. I changed emails and decided to print much genealogical-related mail I had received from family members who had passed. All of this went into the binder system.

I continued to organize by surname and then alphabetically by the first name. Women stayed with their maiden name family. This led me to have to make duplicate marriage records to house with both surnames. Ditto for divorce decrees.

I’ve blogged a great deal this year about my ongoing scanning project; I decided in January it was time to clean a closet where I housed items I obtained from my deceased father. After I scanned each photo and a diary I carefully preserved it, boxed it up and placed it in an interior storage area in my home that is high, meaning secure from floods, temperature-controlled, and as dust-free as possible. We have a humidifier and pest control so the items are as safe as possible. Sure, fire and tornadoes could occur which was why I scanned the items before packing them away.

I’m talking here about three boxes of memorabilia and four photo boxes. When I pass, my kids can pitch it all if they like; I can’t bring myself to do that.

The housed items DO NOT INCLUDE the binders. Sigh. I decided to tackle that this week. I had thought most of the contents had been scanned over the years but upon opening the first binder, discovered that wasn’t the case. My heart sunk. So many binders – so little time!

I made the decision to go through each binder this week and scan the vitals (birth/baptism/Bible entry, marriage, death/obit) for everyone that I’ve accumulated. This allows me to see what I’m missing and need to obtain. So far, it doesn’t look like I’ve missed much. After scanning, these items will then be saved in the acid-free sleeves and returned to a binder. Note: 1 binder. I have a pile of other stuff to go through. Enter Swedish death cleaning and Marie Kondo. . .

My kids will not see any value in my email correspondence from 1999 with their dad’s second cousin who they met once. Her memories are important as she is long dead so I’ll scan and attach them to my personal tree. I’ll attach it to the individual she was memorializing and the scanned email serves as the citation. The paper can be recycled. My kids won’t have to dread going through any of this. I will be able to readily find anything anytime anywhere. Except if I can’t.

I’ve mentioned my projects to my friends and they think I’m nuts, though they haven’t said it verbally. I’ve gotten eye rolls, sideways glances, and one vocal doubter of the value of the project. The doubter has validity – what, she mused, is the point if the apocalypse comes? Yes, the world is a hot mess but I’m not preparing for an apocalypse. If only there were scanners available before the Library of Cairo was sacked! My purpose is for my kids to have an easier time going through my stuff after I die. I’m organizing again so I can find items quickly while I’m on my tech. This will be helpful when I venture out into the world again to do boots-on-the-ground research. I’m also at peace knowing that I have a backup to the item in case a disaster does hit my home. Plus, I’ve got lots more space in my closet!

As several dear readers noted earlier this year – make sure if you are scanning that you save to several locations. Mine is stored in Dropbox which I can access from anywhere and will be saved to three stand-alone hard drives. I will retain one and each of my kids will get one. That way, I’m lessening the chance of the information being lost.

I have very few heirlooms and am not quite ready to turn them over to the next generation yet. I’ve put a label on the bottom of two knickknacks, a lamp, and a carved wooden box that notes who the items originally belonged. I’d like those passed along to the next generation and pairing down to so few items makes that doable.

If you are a senior or you live in a disaster-prone area of the world, take the time now to preserve your years of research. Your effort will not be lost and your future family will much appreciate your thoughtfulness.

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