So far we’ve dug through census records, searched cemeteries, and combed through military records. You’ve found your great-aunt Martha’s birth record and your dear uncle Edgar’s obituary. But what do you do with all the notes, copies, printouts, and source citations? Without some way of organizing your research you will quickly become buried in a mountain of paper. Today we’re going to discuss a few methods for controlling the chaos and making the most of your time and effort.
Organizing Your Information
To continue your research the first thing you need to do is organize the information you already have. Perhaps you’ve been doing this all along, and if so kudos to you. But if you don’t already have a system in place, then it’s time to create one.
When choosing an organizational method, the most important criteria is that it works for you. It should allow you to quickly access your information and documents with minimal effort. Everyone’s method may be slightly different, but they will likely be composed of two components: digital storage and physical storage.
Most genealogists today, whether beginners or experts, use some kind of family tree software. Software makes it easy to attach source information, find family connections, and discover potential errors. There are plenty of options available, a google search will yield hundreds of results, but most people stick with one of the following widely known and trusted companies, listed here in no particular order.
Ancestry.com offers a free family tree building service. You simply sign up for an account and begin typing in your family’s information. Their system is fairly easy to use, and it makes sharing your research quite easy. However, there are features that are not available to non-paying customers, such as being able to automatically attach documents from their databases to members of your tree. And while it allows you to include source information, their system certainly doesn’t encourage it. Therefore many Ancestry.com member trees are entirely without source citations.
In conjunction with this service Ancestry also offers a software product called Family Tree Maker. It is designed to be a companion service to their web-based products. It is rich with features, very user-friendly, reasonably priced between $40 and $80 (depending on the package you choose), and available for both PC and Mac. However, it is geared mostly towards users of Ancestry.com, and to take full advantage of the features offered it would be necessary to maintain a paid subscription to their site.
FamilySearch.org offers a free, downloadable, Windows-based software called Personal Ancestral File . It’s easy to use and while it’s lacking some of the bells and whistles of other software options, it has all the necessary features to record, cite, and share your research.
RootsMagic is a windows-based software that comes highly-recommended. At only $30, it’s one of the more affordable options as well. There is also a free version available for download.
Legacy Family Tree also offers both a free and a paid version of their windows-based software. One of the best features of this software option is the customer support available for users.
Reunion is a Mac-based software that has companion apps available for iPad and iPhone that allow you to sync your information across devices. It is also well-known for having the ability to easily publish your research to a personal website. It is easy to use and full of features, however, at $99 it is one of the more expensive options.
Even if you choose to keep track of your tree digitally, you’re bound to have paper to deal with. Many people choose to use binders to organize these documents, with dividers for each surname. Others prefer to file everything in folders. Whichever system you choose, make sure you’re consistent. Pick a method and stick with it. In other words don’t file some women under their maiden names and others with their husband’s family, or keep some birth records in a single file while others are filed with the relevant person in your tree. Inconsistencies like these make it difficult to retrieve information when you need it.
Once you’ve organized what you have it’s time to think about your future research. After you have much of the basic information about your family, it becomes increasingly important that you focus your research efforts. Rather than searching through databases haphazardly hoping to stumble across something relevant, you should create a plan and attempt to answer specific questions you have about your family’s history.
Research plans are an excellent way to accomplish this. To create a research plan you simply find a question about your family that has yet to be answered, then create a list of possible places to search for the answer. As you do your research, you make note of the sources you’ve consulted and what the results of your searches were. By keeping track of all the places you’ve looked, even the ones that didn’t contain any relevant information, you can avoid conducting the same search again in the future. You can create specific research plans for an individual, a surname, or a family group. Either way, it’s bound to help you accomplish your goals.
Take time now to organize your data and create a method for staying organized as you continue your research. Once you have a system that works for you, you’ll be ready to move forward and continue building your family tree.