Organize that Genealogical Clutter!

Clutter and genealogical research are synonomous.

Ask any genealogical researcher “What is the bane of your existence?”

They’ll answer, “Clutter.”

It goes with the territory. But if you will follow a few easy steps you will find that mishmash of genealogical notes, family group sheets, and family letters a well organized system.

What You Need

Most folks want to input the data into their computer. If you’ve done this, you still need to find a way to coordinate the original hard copy resources you’ve collected. If you have not input the data yet, then you will find that task facilitated by first organizing the data into a searchable system.

If you have a file cabinet with an empty drawer, that’s great. If you don’t have a file cabinet, don’t rush out and buy one. You may find a sturdy cardboard box is sufficient. I was living near a construction site once where they used dynamite. The wooden boxes the dynamite came in were just the right dimensions for letter sized file folders. I begged a few and used them to store file in until I became affluent enough to afford a real file cabinet. The point is, use what you have.

If you insist on buying your filing materials, one excellent office supply source that will meet all your filing needs without going from store to store is Office Max.

You do need file folders. If they are old ones you’ve scrounged from a place throwing out old records, file folders and all, then you need some file folder labels. Ask business friends for old file folders if you need to keep expenses down. Otherwise, buy a box of letter size file folders. A marking pen will do just fine for marking the tabs. If you ever want to use the folder for something other than what you have marked on the tab, just use a file folder label to cover up the old name on the tab. And, of course, this is what you will do if you’re using old, used file folders.

A box, container, or file drawer to hold file folders, the file folders themselves, a marking pen, and patience and fortitude are all you need.


Once you have organized the materials, sit down in front of your pile [or one of your piles] of data. Pick up your first note, letter, group sheet, or whatever piece of paper you want to file. Determine which family [or surname] this critter belongs to. Write that name and a geographical notation on a file folder. For example, MARTIN–SC. Drop the record into the file folder and place the folder into the box, cabinet drawer, or whatever container you have chosen to hold your file folder.

Pick up another document. Identify the surname and location. Create the folder. Place it into the container in alphabetical order. As you sort, this will become essential.

Pick up the third document. Create the folder. Place it into the container in alphabetical order.

Continue to do this until you come to a surname and location you have already filed. Don’t simply place all documents of the same surname into the same folder. You may have Martins from SC and Martins from PA that are not related. You will do a fine sort later, but initially you need to sort materials according to surname and place.

When you come to a document that has more than one name, such as a will, file it according to the first surname in a separate “mixed” file folder, e.g. MARTIN–MIXED–SC. Don’t try to sort out what you’re going to do with these documents just yet. First, get the sorting done.

Continue until you get the sorting completed for all the data you have. If you did nothing more than this, it would be better than a notebook full of loose papers or a shoe box overflowing with notes. Remember, at this point you are simply trying to clean up your clutter.

Filing to Find

Even though you have managed to compile your records into some kind of workable organization, you still do not have an efficient system. Now it’s time to go back and fine tune your work.

You will need more file folders, for now you are going to sort according to families. Begin with the first surname folder. If it is AARON and you have just one document, simply leave the one folder with AARON on the tab and go to the next surname. Suppose it is ANDERSON and you have Johnny ANDERSON, David ANDERSON, and Phyllis ANDERSON documents in the folder. Create file folders for each as you come to the document and place them alphabetically–David ANDERSON, Johnny ANDERSON, Phyllis ANDERSON–as you create them. Place them after the generic ANDERSON file folder, using it as a separator.

Tip: If you have many folders and surnames you are working with, it helps to identify your separators. This can be done simply by using a red marking pen to mark along the top edge of the file tab, or more elaborately, purchase clip on tabs, color-coded file folder labels, or file separators. If you have lots of folders, avoid making separators from thick cardboard or pressed board. My brother did this once for his business and found it took up from 10% to 25% more space. If he had a single thin folder, the separator was twice as thick as the folder!

Continue to sort surnames into family files. When you get to a geographic difference for a surname–e.g. MARTIN-SC and MARTIN-PA as described above–make a different separator to sort all place names from each other. For example, If you have CA, MD, PA, SC, and WI, make separators for each location. This is for two reasons. First, it separates unrelated surnames. Of course, members of the same surname may have become separated because one family migrated to another part of the country, but there is a second reason. Almost all your research is done by location. Courthouse records, churches, cemeteries, newspaper, libraries, and other source repositories are geographical in nature. If you want to search for Uncle Thomas’ will or marriage records or birth records to complete your file on him, most likely it will be from the town where he lived when these events took place.

Of course, lots of research is done by computer these days, for example but even there you will search for local records.

Now is the time to deal with those MIXED records. Say you have a will listing the children of AMOS JOHNSON, but you have several different surnames of married daughters, or even several sons of the same surname you want to identify in their folders as AMOS’ son, what do you do? The simplest procedure would be to write on a sheet of paper [file cards are easily “lost” in large files], SEE AMOS JOHNSON for each other surname and place the sheets in the various file folders. Place the will in AMOS JOHNSON’s folder. If you have a photocopier handy, you also can simply photocopy the will for each folder instead of creating the SEE AMOS JOHNSON .

Final Tips

When you have finished the task of organizing your clutter, you will have an organized, systematic file repository that can easily be searched. But hear this!

You must keep it up to date. When you find a new fact, don’t—repeat don’t –simply drop it into a to be filed folder. Soon that folder will be bulging larger than your original files and not easy to search when you want to find that letter Aunt Mary sent last month listing all her siblings’ birthdays.

Take a moment each time a new record comes in to file it properly. You have an efficient filing system. Don’t wait until later to file it. Do it now. Believe me, if you don’t take the minute to file it as you get it, you will spend an hour looking for it later. Develop good filing habits. You’ll be glad you did.

If you are going to input this data into your computer, unless you have a computerized genealogy program, set up your folders on your computer just the way you set up your filing system. It makes the process of inputting data much easier. And the easier it is to find genealogical records with no clutter, the more fun it is to do genealogy.

This site hosted by SiteSell