How to organise your family history research


14 January 2019
Why not make it your mission this winter to you get your family history organised? Our tips and ideas will help you keep on top of your projects, whether you're new to genealogy or have been tracing your ancestors for years.

It’s never too late to organise your notes and documents so that they don’t become too overwhelming - allowing you to focus on the fun part - finding your ancestors.

Six steps to organising your family history

There are six main categories of research to organise in order to have an easy-to-use organisation and filing system, and we’ll explore each here:

  • notes of your work in progress
  • family charts, trees and record sheets
  • original documentation
  • family history memorabilia
  • photographs
  • your family history library

Once you’ve researched more than one ancestor, you’re sure to find your paperwork growing quickly. Even if you like to store most of your findings electronically, it’s good to have paper print outs for posterity, sharing and easy reference when you’re not online.

Also, having your information organised and easy to add to, you free up your time for more research! And having paper copies you can refer to and move around (for example to look at paperwork side by side) means you can identify gaps in your research or even clues that you’ve missed.

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1. Your working notes

Your research log is an ongoing document which shows what you’ve looked for and where – preventing you from duplicating and showing where the facts you have came from. Also keep correspondence logs and a research record covering all ancestors.

Consider creating a small portable research file which has an overview of your research, your working family tree and to do list, so that you don’t have to transport bulky and precious originals to libraries and archives.

2. Family tree paperwork

To be super organised, have a separate binder (with acid-free pockets) for each surname on your tree. This can contain a copy of your family tree, record sheets for individuals and other information pertinent to the family such as census returns.

Don’t be tempted to use cheap PVC pockets as these can strip the ink from the document; acid-free archive quality versions will give your documents top protection.

3. Original documents

Your precious original documents are the foundation of your research and include inherited documents such as BMD certificates, school reports, certificates for professional qualifications, service records, etc.

These are the items which you’ll be passing onto the next generation and so it’s worth taking the most care with this category, as these are the records which must stand the test of time.

Acid free storage materials are used by record offices and archives and are widely available from family history supply companies.

4. Family history memorabilia

Anything of a non-paper or bulky nature comes under this category and acid-free storage boxes are the best bet for long term preservation. Wrap items such as Bibles or fabrics in acid-free tissue paper before storing in the box.

5. Photographs

You can have old photos scanned and restored before keeping them in your own family archive.  Sulphur-free boxes are perfect for photos if not stored in an album. Don’t use sticky labels on the back. If you must write on the back use a soft lead pencil and write names, date and occasion.

Expert advice

National Archives advice on caring for your research.

6. Your family history library

Most of us don't have room for shelves and shelves of family history books, but it can be really useful to own a few key texts that will help you at all stages of your research. Ideas include:

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