How to sort out your family history. You can make a start right away


17 June 2024
How to organise your family history one simple step at a time... How to organise your family history one simple step at a time... Alexander Grey Unsplash
How to get organised and keep organised are key questions that family historians wrestle with. We have a very simple step of steps below to help you organise your documents and photos, and keep track of what you're doing, so that you can easily pick up your research where you left off - every time... Enjoy!

How to get (and keep) organised is something that many family historians ponder.

In the course of doing our family history we accumulate an awful lot of material. Dates and details, printouts and downloads, and a family tree that can grow like topsy.

It may well be that you are an experienced researcher - you've been tracing your family tree for years, even decades. Perhaps you used to keep a detailed, carefully written notebook or computer record, in the days way back when, before the world of widespread online family history records.

But, before you've realised what's happened, years have passed, and you've accumulated a wealth of material, but perhaps it's not as organised as you would like.

These are the sorts of questions we come across from Family Tree readers and other family historians: 

  • Is it really worth keeping a research log? (I feel as though I’m wasting research time filling it in)
  • I just don’t know where to get started with getting organised (I’ve been researching for years, and now I’ve got a mound of print outs)
  • I’ve tried sorting out my family history research from scratch, but I spent weeks and only scratched the surface (I don’t feel it’s possible, what can I do?)

We can help with this, and have a very do-able strategy that you can make a start on right away, and keep going with, as you continue to work on and enjoy your family history.

PS If you are already super organised, you keep good notes, your paper and digital files and folders are shipshape - you need read no further. These tips below are for those of us who would like a hand getting our family history back in a nice organised system to enjoy.

Step 1. Start a family history research log (why and how a family history research log will help you)

Start a family history research log. In your log you will write down what you do each time you have a family history session. 

Your log can be a paper notebook, a Word document, an Excel file, or any of the cloud based apps note-keeping apps, such as One-Note etc. 

Top tip: create your log in the format that you are comfortable with. eg if Excel makes you run a mile, use a Word doc or a notebook. 

Your research log is not a faff or a punishment - your research log is your buddy, your assistant, to help you remember what's what nice and easily.

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Why have a family history research log? 

  • It provides you with a space in which to record what you are doing. The why, what, where, how and who you are researching.
  • The process of recording your research in a log will help you reflect on it, making for a more rewarding research session.
  • Written down, you don't need to rely on your busy brain to remember why you drew the research conclusion you did.
  • At the end of each research session you can include a 'note to self' to remind you what it is that you would like to do next time. This could be a short list, or a summary. This note to self will mean that you can pick up your research, and quickly be back in the driving seat, doing your family history... rather than wondering what you've done and where you've looked.

How to keep a family history research log?

Simply record who you are looking for, the search terms you use, the places, websites, record collections and other resources in which you search for them, and your search results. As ever, be sure to include instances in which you are unsuccessful... so that don't repeat the same fruitless line of enquiry.

Your research log can be quick notes, paragraphs of writing, bullet points, or a combination. Write in the way that feels most useful and most enjoyable to you.

Step 2: How to sort out your family history print outs

You've taken a long time gathering the printouts relating to your ancestors, and now have a mound of paper. This is solvable, with a little consistent time. It could be disheartening to decide to tackle it all, and not allow yourself any family history research time in the meantime. In reality, as you go through the printouts you are likely to find that you would like to, or need to, do some further research to tie up loose ends.

For this reason, we recommend allocating a little regular time, to gradually work through your printouts. You could decide to do 10 minutes a day. Or you could decided to make every other family history session a 'print out purge' session.

There is nothing wrong with a printout and it's fine to have a paper archive - but to turn your pile of print outs into organised research you need to do a few things.

1. ensure that all the information in the printout has been added to your family tree (transcribing the details and adding source information);

2. ensure that your research conclusions from the evidence in the printout has been added to your research log.

Step 3: Sorting out your digital family history files

Your digital files - those downloads of documents and photos - can be just as much of a mess as the pile of papers. Again, a little order will help to bring calm, if you're feeling a bit of genealogy chaos.

We recommend keeping your folder structure as simple as you can. The reason for this is that your computer is excellent at sorting material, and being searched too. Having many folders means that you run into the problem of having to decide where to file a document that relates to many people, and you run the risk of using up unnecessary digital storage space. For instance, if you make a copy of a marriage certificate do you decide tos tore it in the bride's folder or the groom's, or both. If you have just one folder for documents you don't need to make this decdision.

So how do we recommend organising your family history folders?

1. Set up a folder called 'My family history'. Within that have a folder called 'My family history documents', another folder called 'My family history photos', and a third folder for admin called 'My family history admin'.

  • In 'My family history documents' you put all your digital downloads and photos of documents. 
  • In 'My family history photos' you put all the digital photos, including photos of old photos.
  • In 'My family history admin' you put your research log (if you are having a digital research log, rather than a paper notebook).

It could be that your files are a jumble, but gradually you can work on naming your files in a logical manner, for instance, with the file name starting with the surname, so that all the files for that family can be sorted appropriately by your computer.

As with that pile of printouts, that we mentioned above, don't beat yourself up and put yourself on an onerous mission to accomplish everything in one go. We would recommend setting up the folders, as suggested just above, and, as you do new research, add your new downloads and digital documents to these folders with a nice clear file name. 

Meanwhile, also allocate yourself a little regular time, for instance, 10 minutes a day, to gradually work through your past digital files, giving them lucid names and putting them into the appropriate folder.

You'll get there and thank your future genealogical self for having taken the trouble to create an orderly family history system that you love to use.

Would you like more simple steps to doing family history better?

We think you might like the new edition of our Family History Workbook for Beginners, published June 2024. Yes some of the info is for brand new beginners, to help people know where to search for free family history info, how to make sense of the census and birth certificates etc. But there's lots of super-handy information about building better online family trees, being more genealogically organised and all sorts of other things. Grab your copy here (£11.99)