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Binders, Notebooks or Folders? - Organizing Your Genealogy Files

Surname or Family Group?

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To set up and use file folders to organize your genealogy records you will need the following basic supplies:
  1. A filing cabinet or file boxes with lids. The boxes need to be strong, preferably plastic, with horizontal inner ridges or grooves for letter-size hanging files.
  2. Colored, letter-size hanging file folders in blue, green, red, and yellow. Look for ones with large tabs. You can also save a bit of money here by purchasing standard green hanging file-folders instead, and using colored labels for the color-coding.
  3. Manila folders. These should have slightly smaller tabs than the hanging file folders, and should have reinforced tops to last through heavy use.
  4. Pens. For best results, use a pen with an ultra fine point, felt tip, and black, permanent, acid-free ink.
  5. Highlighters. Buy highlighters in light blue, light green, yellow, and pink (don't use red because it is too dark). Colored pencils also work.
  6. Labels for file folders. These labels should have blue, green, red and yellow strips along the top and permanent adhesive on the back.

Once you've assembled your supplies, it's time to get started with the file folders. Use different colored file folders for the lineages of each of your four grandparents - in other words, all folders created for the ancestors of one grandparent will be marked with the same color. The colors you select are up to you, but the following color choices are the most common:

  • BLUE - ancestors of your paternal grandfather (father's father)
  • GREEN - ancestors of your paternal grandmother (father's mother)
  • RED - ancestors of your maternal grandfather (mother's father)
  • YELLOW - ancestors of your maternal grandmother (mother's mother)

Using the colors as outlined above, create a separate folder for each surname, writing names on the hanging file tab insert with the black permanent marker (or printing inserts on your printer). Then hang the files in alphabetical order in your file box or cabinet by color (i.e. put the blues alphabetically in one group, the greens in another group, etc.).

If you're new to genealogy research, this may be all you need to do. If you have accumulated a lot of notes and photocopies, however, it is now time to subdivide. Here is where you need to choose how you want to organize your files. The two most popular methods as discussed on page 1 of this article are 1) by Surname (further broken down as needed by Locality and/or Record Type) and 2) by Couple or Family Group. The basic filing instructions are the same for each, the difference is primarily in how they are organized. If you aren't sure yet which method will work best for you, try using the Surname method for one surname and the Family Group method for one or two families. See which one suits you best, or develop your own combination of the two.

Family Group Method
Create a family group sheet for each married couple listed on your pedigree chart. Then set up manila folders for each of the families by putting a colored label on the file folder tab. Match the label color to the color of the appropriate family line. On each label, write the names of the couple (using the maiden name for the wife) and the numbers from your pedigree chart (most pedigree charts use the ahnentafel numbering system). Example: James OWENS and Mary CRISP, 4/5. Then place these manila family folders in the hanging folders for the appropriate surname and color, arranging in alphabetical order by the husband's first name or in numerical order by the numbers from your pedigree chart.

In the front of each manila folder, attach the family group record of the family to serve as a table of contents. If there was more than one marriage, make a separate folder with a family group record for each other marriage. Each family folder should include all documents and notes from the time of a couple's marriage. Documents which pertain to events prior to their marriage should be filed in the folders of their parents, such as birth certificates and family census records.

Surname & Record Type Method
First sort your files by surname, and then create manila folders for each of the record types for which you have paperwork by putting a colored label on the file folder tab, matching the label color to the surname. On each label, write the name of the surname, followed by the record type. Example: CRISP: Census, CRISP: Land Records. Then place these manila family folders in the hanging folders for the appropriate surname and color, arranging in alphabetical order by the type of record.

In the front of each manila folder, create and attach a table of contents that indexes the contents of the folder. Then add all documents and notes which correspond with the surname and type of record.

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