Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Finding Your Desk - Another Take on Organization

Many of us spent part of February either attending or viewing sessions at RootsTech/FGS 2015. We learned about new technology, new resources, and new ways of looking at or working with our family history research. One of the more interesting exercises at this conference was to engage in "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." (I'm talking about our genealogy management programs, spreadsheet programs, and filing systems - what were you thinking?!)

Why were we getting together to discuss software and apps, spreadsheets and image software, filing systems and work-spaces? Because it is always interesting to see how others do things! We also want to make sure that no one has a better, easier, or faster system for filing, maintaining, and retrieving all our family history finds. So many genealogists and family historians have been at this for decades and they either have some truly wonderful ideas and are quite organized or they have piles of information and mention that getting organized is the next thing on their to-do list.

In my case I did not start doing genealogy until 2007 and the first thing I did was check a few books out of the library on how to do genealogy and sign up for the American Records track at the Salt Lake Institute for Genealogy. Paula Stuart Warren was my first teacher. At that seminar, I asked about digital filing and got strange looks from most of the other attendees. Today everyone is surprised if someone hasn't scanned all their paper files!

make a plan and work your plan!
Image courtesy of ID-10061774 digitalart

Luckily for me, some genealogists who had been at it for awhile offered to sit down with me and gave me some wonderful advice.

  • get a genealogy management program and learn how to use it (it doesn't matter which program as it is highly individual - but kick those tires, take a few programs on a test drive, and then make a decision)
  • don't do a smash and grab with online or offline family trees (start with your own family and work with your own records - it helps you understand the process and working with known people, places and dates gives you an opportunity to have a useful sample file; don't rely on others' work - consider everything you see online as clues on your search but rely on your own research and work product)
  • the best filing system is the one you actually use (you can have all the greatest systems, color-coding, fancy folders, etc., but if it is too much trouble or too involved it just won't happen and then you will have those dreaded filing piles)
  • take the time, on a regular basis, to clean up and organize your work space (I learned this with cooking - cleaning as you go is much easier than looking at a huge mess in the kitchen later)

I took their advice to heart and although I don't have a perfect system, I have a perfect system for me (and that's what important). My genealogy filing system was in its early stages when our family decided to organize and scan all our family slides and photos a few years ago. We did some serious research (you have probably figured out we love to research, plan and organize things in my family - both parents are, and always have been, list makers and with eight children my mom had to be organized!). We decided to spend the money to have our slides and photographs professionally scanned. We met with the lead person, asked him about logistics, and took the time to come up with a plan. The company did the "hard work" of cleaning, scanning and digitizing everything and then the process moved on to us to incorporate metadata and tagging in our software of choice (this is where it is helpful to have lots of siblings). It was a great division of labor because he and his team knew about scanning and we knew who our family members were, as well as the dates and occasions that were reflected in the images.

Now everyone in our family has a DVD set of the early years (about 11,000 photos and slides), we have a family vault (on an external hard drive backed up on another one). We can easily add to the vault and provide scans when requested by extended family members - which is helpful with reunions, marriages, graduations, etc. Did I mention that we also use both our images and my documents with some of our creative family endeavors? I was very happy to see Panstoria at the RootsTech Exhibit Hall. I love their software - Historian (the vault where you store and work with images) and Artisan (the playground where you make posters, cards, scrapbooks, etc., using images from your vault).

I took the lessons learned from that scanning exercise and applied them to my genealogy filing system (online and offline - it helps to mirror your systems). Since it is the same idea, I have a process in place that I use and it works. And that is what it is all about. The key to any of this is thinking about how you want to use your data or your images, how the search feature of your operating system works, and not get too obsessed with folders, sub-folders, and sub-sub-folders. I agree with Jill Ball and others - KISS Keep It Simple Sweetheart (not the version I heard!) Definitely think about the long term, plan, then execute on a small level, tweak, revise, then JUST DO IT, and stick with it.

Thanks to Jill Ball, Pauleen Cass and Julie Goucher for sharing their experiences with file organization (Jill - sorry I missed your GeniAus hangout - will watch it on YouTube as I love organization). I am happy to say that no animals were injured in the writing of this blog (you mentioned something about skinning cats in your blog post). I will admit to checking out coggle after reading Pauleen's recent post (not quite a shiny penny as I have been playing with the idea of mind mapping so thanks Pauleen for the link - coggle passed my first test - it was easy to figure out!). I am making use of a new-to-me idea that is a bullet journal. I found myself using a variety of online reminders that I simply ignored or pushed off, and writing notes on blank pieces of paper which added to my filing pile (oh yes I have one because I am not perfect). I decided to go old school and write all my tasks, appointments, meeting notes, books read, expenses, to-dos, and project ideas in one notebook in a day by day format (Julie - I think this is what you have been doing for years!). So far so good. At least I know where to find everything (and it fits in my bag so it's all good).

My advice - think about the output you want as it will determine your input. While some refer to it as garbage in, garbage out, I prefer to think of it as gold in, gold out.

gold in, gold out - think about it before you do it!
Image courtesy of ID-10067079 stuart miles

Until next month,


  1. A superb post Tessa. It's obvious you are a very logical person...I thought I was pretty good at systems...maybe just not those at home ;) Oh, and can I borrow your siblings to reset my system?

    1. Although any of them would enjoy the trip down under - I did have to pester a few to get them to do their part (it was their own fault for being involved in school and sport activities). Their children enjoyed seeing their parents as children and those early clothing choices have come back to haunt them.

  2. Tessa, I too have been having a little play with Coggle and will probably produce a blog post on it at some point.

    As to journaling. I have always kept a diary for appointments and reminders eg take X to person Y for example. My journal has a mix of material. To do lists, notes from meetings, items for agenda for future meetings, notes from webinars, research etc. I also do a lot of presentation and writing planning in the same book. I leave the first two pages clear then use them as an index which I do as I go along. I also date every page. I especially like Moleskin as those books come with an inside pocket in the back cover and that means I can pop small bits into it for safe keeping and in the case of one index card it moves from journal to journal, If I lost it, it would not be the end of the world as it is scanned and archived in Evernote, but I always know that specific piece of information is on a pink 6 x 4 card!

    I love the concept of a digital archive/vault of photos that family members can have access to and upload and download accordingly. I must check out those links too!

    1. When my sister and I started the project, we used a company called Creative Memories. I was a bit worried when I saw they were going out of business but found out that Panstoria was the actual product owner - apparently CM had licensed their product. Switching over to Panstoria was effortless (simply updating and paying for the program). Was really happy to see them at RootsTech as they are a responsible and successful company.

      The bullet journal makes sense to me now - I thought online reminders or notes would do the trick but have found that an early morning or late night review and the process of writing really makes everything stick for me.

  3. Such sensible advice Tessa. Hope it's OK to share your dot points (with attribution) to our local group,, at a future meeting. I believe in sharing general concepts/rules rather than saying "Do it my way".

    1. Perfectly fine to share anything Jill - I am a big believer in sharing and paying it forward in the genealogy and family history community. I get wonderful ideas from others and find the vast majority of genealogists out there are "good people" - who happily encourage each other.


Hello, thanks for leaving a comment on the World Wide Genealogy Blog. All comments are moderated because of pesky spammers!

Best wishes
World Wide Genealogy Team