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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
 

Contents

Organization of Written Information

Here the big decision is whether to go with file folders or binders. Consider the storage space available at home as well as what suits you personally. Some people just get along better with neatly labelled binders on a shelf. Others are much happier with a systematically organized filing cabinet. Plan for expansion, this hobby just grows and grows!

Go to your local office superstore and examine the wide range of folders, binders and colour-coded indexers available. When you buy, keep the packaging materials, as well as noting the store name and price, so you can advise your nearest and dearest what you would really like for Christmas and birthday presents!

Once you have decided whether you are a file folder person or a binder addict, the next thing is to consider which method of organizing your documents will work best for you: In Order of Acquisition, By Ancestral Number, By Generation or By Ancestral Name. It is best to choose the simplest system that will do the job for any particular project.

1. In Order of Acquisition

One simply numbers each item as it is acquired and then files them in numerical order in a file folder (which will rapidly become a series of file folders), or in your loose-leaf binder(s).

With this method you will need to firstly, keep at the front of the folder/binder a list of items held, and secondly, cross-reference by making a note on the appropriate ancestor’s file card, computer page or family group sheet of the item held and its number.

Example of Order of Acquisition Method

Item # Description Where noted
1 My birth certificate My file card
2 My parents marriage certificate Their file card
3 Aunt Jane SMITH's funeral card William and Jane SMITH's card
4 Grandpa BROWN's army record Albert BROWN's card

This method is easy to implement but suffers from the drawback that it is hard to review the material on any one person quickly and there is no provision for general family information. It is useful in certain types of collections ancillary to your main research.

For example:

  • Collection of pictures of various ships associated with your family
  • Your collection of tape recordings
  • Organizing a heap of miscellaneous information

2. By Ancestral Number

Here one chooses a system of numbering ancestors, for example the standard Sosa-Stradonitz Pedigree Chart numbers and creates a file folder or binder section for each one. Everything for that ancestor is then filed together in that folder or section, and these are filed numerically.

Example of Ancestral Number Method

Item
Ancestor 4 – William JONES
4-1
William JONES birth certificate
4-2
William JONES death certificate
4-3
William JONES trade card
4-4
William JONES land record
4-5
William JONES family on 1881 census

This system works well for those researching only their direct ancestors, and can be modified to include siblings of ancestors (4a, 4b, 4c etc.) and still work well. It is simple to understand and use. One needs a standard Sosa-Stradonitz -numbered pedigree chart close at hand to remind one of the ancestral number for each ancestor.

To include more relatives, one can use a more complex numbering system of course, but one is still limited to the amount of numbers in the chosen system.

Some of these mathematical systems are horrendously complex. If one’s research goals include more than just ‘siblings of ancestors’ this method is rather unwieldy, especially for the beginner. The author prefers to not reduce ancestors to mere numbers. For most genealogists names are far easier to work with and one gets to know the people this way. It is much more interesting to work with George the parson and George the butcher than with IIIa7b and IVd4h.

With this method there is no provision for general family information.

3. By Generation—Ascending or Descending

Here each couple has a file folder or binder section, and these are filed according to their place within the family, generation by generation. One can proceed backwards in time starting with yourself (Ascending—see chart below), or forwards, starting with your remotest ancestor (Descending—see chart below). With these methods there is no provision for general family information.

There are also several complications which are outlined below, but these systems do have particular uses.

Example of Generation Method—Ascending

Generation File 1 File 2 File 3 Etc.
1 – purple Yourself Your brother Your sister etc.
2 – blue Your parents Your uncle Your aunt etc.
3 – green Your grandparents Your great uncle Your great aunt etc.
4 – yellow Your great grandparents Your great grand uncle Your great grand aunt etc.
5 – orange Your 2nd GG Your 2nd GG uncle Your 2nd GG aunt etc.
etc.



This method works well if you are researching only one surname line; a separate binder or file drawer/section would have to be used for each additional surname. Advantages are that siblings can be next to each other in date order, there is a logical progression backwards in time, and you can continue to add further generations as you research further back.

There are problems as your data expands as it is more difficult to keep track of where each file is located, you have to refer to an index at the front, or have an incredible memory.

Example of Generation Method—Descending

File
Order
Generation 1 Generation 2 Generation 3 Generation 4 Etc.
1 Remotest ancestor



2
Child 1


3
Child 2


4

Grandchild 1

5

Grandchild 2

6
Child 3


7

Grandchild 1

8


Great grandchild 1
9


Great grandchild 2
10


Great grandchild 3
11

Grandchild 2

12


Great grandchild 1
etc.




This works well for those interested only in the descendants of one couple. There is a logical progression forwards through the generations, and newly discovered branches, newlyweds and newborn twigs can readily be added. As the data expands an indexed descendancy chart would be essential in locating particular files.

A slight disadvantage is that if one decided later to research further back in time, thought has to be given to the correct placement of the additional sections at the front.

4. By Ancestral Name

In this method each couple has a file folder or binder section, filed alphabetically according to the husband’s surname then first name. All documents pertaining to this couple and their unmarried children are kept in this file/section. A child in whom you are interested, whether married or not, has his or her own file, and copies of items relating to their birth/christening and early life are transferred from their parents’ to their own file.

It is very useful to have a general file, differentiated by colour, for each family name. One can collect here the correspondence on this family and any general material relating to several people, and even items that look interesting but have not yet been assigned to a file of their own, such as miscellaneous christenings of possible family members.

Example of Ancestral Name Method: Starting Stage

Title
Colour
Contents
JOHNSON
Orange
General Family Information.
JOHNSON, Adam and Martha
Beige
All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Bertram and Jane
Beige
All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Christopher and Mary
Beige
All documents relating to this couple and children.


Suggested Order of Arrangement of Items Within a Couple’s Folder

1
Family Group Record

2
Husband
birth, christening, marriage, death, burial, probate.
3
Wife
birth, christening, death, burial, probate.
4
Unmarried children (in order of birth) or those whose lines you are not pursuing
birth, christening, marriage, death, burial, probate.
5
Census records by date

6
Miscellaneous items

7
Correspondence

8
Research Log

9
Research Ideas Log

The General Family Information Folder can be subdivided as it gets bigger into Census Records, Correspondence, Family Trees, Parish Register Entries as shown in the chart below.

Example of Ancestral Name Method: Middle Stage

Title Colour Contents
JOHNSON – CENSUS Purple Census Records.
JOHNSON – CIVIL REGISTRATION Blue Civil Registration Lists.
JOHNSON – CORRESPONDENCE Green Letters sent and received that do not fit in any family file.
JOHNSON – FAMILY TREES Yellow Any family tree for Johnson family.
JOHNSON – MISCELLANEOUS Orange Any Johnson information that doesn’t fit in any other file.
JOHNSON – PARISH REGISTERS Red Lists of Johnsons from various parish registers.
JOHNSON – PROBATE Black Lists of Johnson wills and admons.
JOHNSON, Adam and Martha Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Bertram and Jane Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Christopher and Mary Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.

Method 4 (By Ancestral Name) is probably the most popular method as it enables one to review all of the material for any one person quickly, and allows of infinite expansion in any direction that research may take in the future. An alphabetical arrangement is the simplest method of finding anyone quickly, but one would need to refer to the family charts to find where they fit into the family. There is, in addition, plenty of expandable room for general family information.

You may find that file folders are your choice for people, but binders are preferable for subjects. This is OK; but do then keep all the people in folders' 'and all the subjects in binders.

Example of Ancestral Name Method: Advanced Stage 

Title Colour Contents
JOHNSON – CENSUS Purple Census Records
- 1841 – by Piece or Film #
- 1851 – by Piece or Film #
- 1861 – by Piece or Film #
- 1871 – by Piece or Film #
- 1881 – by Piece or Film #
- 1891 – by Piece or Film #
JOHNSON – CIVIL REGISTRATION Blue Civil Registration Lists
- England – births
- England – marriages
- England – deaths
- Ireland – births
- Ireland – marriages
- Ireland – deaths
- Scotland – births
- Scotland – marriages
- Scotland – deaths
JOHNSON – CORRESPONDENCE Green Letters sent and received that do not fit in any family file. Alphabetical by correspondent, using large paper clip to hold each separate correspondent’s material together.
JOHNSON – FAMILY TREES Yellow Any family tree for Johnson family. Alphabetical by head of tree.
JOHNSON – MISCELLANEOUS Orange Any Johnson information that doesn’t fit in any other file.
JOHNSON – PARISH REGISTERS Red Lists of Johnsons from various parish registers. Alphabetical by country, then county, then parish.
JOHNSON – PROBATE Black Lists of Johnson wills and admons. Alphabetical by country and name of court.
JOHNSON, Adam and Martha Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Bertram and Jane Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.
JOHNSON, Christopher and Mary Beige All documents relating to this couple and children.


________________________________________


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.