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Untangling Your Roots: Organizing Basics for Genealogical Research

Family treeResearching your family’s genealogy is an entertaining and rewarding hobby. If you’ve been successful in finding information, then you know that it’s also a hobby that generates mountains of data—pedigree charts, wills, journals, diaries, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, maps, deeds—the list just grows over time. How will you keep up with it all, much less hand over comprehensible information to the next generation?

Many people now use computer database applications to track the results of their genealogical research. But the hobby still generates vast amounts of paper to physically organize. Here are a couple of strategies to build a system that can expand as your collection grows.

Three-ring Binders

Many people new to genealogical research begin organizing their material with a binder for each of their grandparents. Here’s the basic idea:

  • Set up a three-ring binder for the surname of each grandparent.
  • In each surname binder, sort materials by first name.
  • Within each first name, arrange your materials as you like; for example, chronologically or following some other established order.
  • Use archival-safe sheet protectors for your materials.
  • Oversized or three-dimensional records (diaries, bibles, framed certificates) should be stored in archival-safe, acid-free boxes or file folders.
  • For easy reference, place family group sheets at the front of the binder.
  • Set up a “Miscellaneous Surnames” binder for new names you discover in the course of your research. Once the volume of material warrants it, designate a separate binder for that surname.

Keep these points in mind when using binders:

  • Never take a surname binder to the library. Losing a binder and its contents would be devastating. (Note: Some libraries and genealogical research sites also place restrictions on what you may bring with you into the facility. We recommend that you check the rules before your research trip.)
  • Instead, make a separate binder for research trips, with photocopies of pedigree charts and family group sheets.
  • If you want specific records to go on a research trip, make copies. Originals stay home!
  • Oversized records don’t work well in binders. If you decide to use on a binder system, you’ll need a place for these larger items, such as a dedicated storage box or file drawer.

Color-coded Hanging File Folders

Although many researchers start with binders, you may find that a color-coded file folder system works better once the volume of information outgrows your binder space. Here’s an outline of such a system:

  • Start with 16 hanging file folders—four each in four different colors.
  • The folders themselves and/or the label tabs may be colored.
  • Each color represents one grandparent’s surname. For example, information about your paternal grandfather and his ancestors might go in a set of blue folders—one for each of his grandparents’ surnames. The four surnames of your paternal grandmother’s grandparents might go in red folders, and so on.
  • In each surname folder, sort materials by first name.
  • Within each first name, sort materials according to your system of choice.

Keep these points in mind when using color-coded hanging file folders:

  • Hanging file folders come in a variety of expandable types, including one- to four-inch box-bottom folders that can accommodate most materials, including oversized and three-dimensional items.
  • Some maps or very large materials require too much folding to fit in hanging files. Look for supplemental storage containers, such as archival-safe boxes or map tubes.



Organizing Your Family History Search: Efficient & Effective Ways to Gather and Protect Your Genealogical Research

Sharon Carmack

Managing a Genealogical Project (Updated Edition)

William Dollarhide

Organizing and Preserving Your Heirloom Documents

Katherine Scott Sturdevant

Beyond Pedigrees: Organizing and Enhancing Your Work

Beverly Delong Whitaker

30 Seconds: A Guide to Organizing Your Genealogy Files

Robert Langman and Jimmy B. Parker

Software applications for organizing your research

Family Tree Maker



Support and networking

Houston Genealogical Forum

Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, Houston, Texas

Clayton Library Friends

RootsMagic user groups

Useful products

Acid-free Sheet Protectors

The Scrap Rack

This article was featured in our May 2009 e-mail newsletter. To subscribe to our newsletter, please use the “Subscribe” form, above right.

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