Category Archives: Organization Tips/Tricks/Hints

Do You Really Need Paper Files?

Recently, I saw a question in The Organized Genealogist Facebook Group that caught my eye: “How does everyone organize paper files? …Are paper files even needed anymore?”

If you have been reading my blog for a while, then you know that I am a big believer in going digital with your research.  I love having my files at my fingertips on any device, at anytime.  I love that my tree is backed up on my computer, various cloud storage sites, and flash dries.  And?  It only takes up the space of my laptop.  That’s important, because in my tiny studio, I don’t have the space for a file cabinet or large bookshelves.  It just isn’t feasible for my space.

But can you go complete paperless?  The short answer: Mostly.

The key word is mostly.  With technology, you no longer need to have print outs and photocopies and handwritten notes sprawled out on random Post-Its and napkins.  In all honesty, you don’t really need to print much out to begin with.  When you find a record online, then just save it digitally.  When you need to take notes, add it to your family tree program or note-taking program like OneNote.

Of course, there are instances where you will need to order records from courthouses or archives.  The first thing I do is scan the document so I have a digital copy of the file.  Then I store the record in file folders (preferably legal sized) and then in boxes.  I am not going to throw away a document I just paid for, even if it is in paper.

There are also times when I will write or print something out to see a research problem clearer.  Sometimes, the act of taking a pen to paper can draw out new ideas that typing on a keyboard just can’t.  Or sometimes, if I print a problem out and leave it on my bulletin board, I will randomly get inspired with a new idea to try or something I forgot to consider.  But once I am done with the paper, I will scan it using my phone and either stick it into OneNote (my note-taking program of choice) or save it in my digital filing system.

So can I go paperless in genealogy?  Mostly.

What about you?



Organizing Tip: Complete The Cycle

I have a confession: I’m an organizing junkie.  I read organizing blogs.  I watch organizing videos.  I read organizing books.  I’m seriously addicted to the idea of organizing.

Did you notice that?  I love the idea of organizing – but I don’t like the process and the work involved to get and stay organized.  In fact, getting organized is kinda fun.  Invigorating actually.  But the staying organized – well, that’s a whole other ball game.

But as I get prepared to start student teaching in the fall and plan a wedding and move in with my fiance, I have put organizing as a whole new priority.  I need to de-clutter, give everything a home, and put it all away so that I have more time to do fun things like research my ancestors!
And my favorite tip that I’ve picked up in all my obsessive organizing years is this:

Organizing Tip: Complete the Cycle

So, if you print a report out, file it.  If you are scanning pictures, name them and digitally file them away.  Complete the cycle.  Don’t stop half way.

And it’s so easy to stop half way – to sit that freshly printed report down on your desk with the best intentions of filing it later.  But then later never comes and pretty soon you have a hefty stack of paper on your desk to file.  And then you avoid that stack like the plague and hope it magically files itself.  But this ain’t a Harry Potter movie – those papers aren’t going to put themselves away.

You have to put them away.

Same goes with finding a new record – analyze it and then enter into whatever genealogy program you use.  Name the record.  Give it a home and file it away.

But what if you’re thinking, “But Elyse, I don’t *have* a cycle for _________“.

Well then, you, my dear reader, are in luck!  Stay tuned for the next post when I talk about how to create a cycle for a genealogy or family history task.


Busting Down Brick Walls: Organize Your Project (Part 2)

Here is part two in the blog post series all about busting down your brick walls by organizing your project.  If you missed part one, you can read it here.

Busting Down Brick Walls Part 2

3.) List Your Hypotheses.  What are your educated guesses to answer your research question?  What do you think may have happened?  What is your reasoning behind your guess?

4.) Create the F.A.N. List: When researching your ancestors, it is super important to keep a list of the people your ancestors interacted with throughout their lives.  These people are called F.A.N.s – friends, associates, and neighbors.  These are the people your ancestors did business with, sat next to in church, and signed documents as witnesses.  When you get really stuck with an ancestor, it is often the friends, associates, and neighbors that will have more information – research the F.A.N.s and you might find the missing piece of the puzzle to your research question.

5.) Create a To-Do List: Now that you have all information about your ancestor and the research problem laid out in a clear and organized manner, it is time to create a research to-do list.  Carefully look at the information and begin to brainstorm the records and resources you want to check.  Maybe you need to employ a new search strategy – like trying different naming spellings or checking the surrounding counties – to a resource you’ve already checked to find your ancestor.

6.) Collaborate: Collaborating with other researchers is a great way to find new perspective and get new research ideas.  Whenever I have a research problem, I share the problem with others – two heads (or more!) are always better than one!   I love to write blog posts about my brick wall ancestors – this will hopefully attract unknown cousins that might have information to share, and other researchers can have a chance to make recommendations or share resources I hadn’t thought of yet.  Someone else might look at your research and have a fresh perspective to offer – like maybe you read a word incorrectly or didn’t know that geographic boundaries had changed and you should be looking in a different jurisdiction for that record.

If blog posts are you’re style, use a message board to share your problem.  Like a blog post, other people can comment with ideas and fresh perspective – and you might just find a cousin!

Also look into using collaborative websites like WikiTree (my fav – and not just cause I work there!) or WeRelate.  Both of these options allow for multiple researchers to collaborate on one ancestor profile.

7.) Re-Evaluate & Repeat: As you finish steps 1-6, you’ve hopefully gathered some new information.  Now repeat the entire process, entering in all new information, until you have successfully answered your question.


So that’s it for this blog series – have you busted down any brick walls lately?  Tell me about it in the comments below!

[Photo: Flickr User Jayel Aheram, text added by Elyse Doerflinger]


Mozy – A Backup Service Reviewed

Note: In honor of Data Back Up Day (the 1st of every month), I am republishing this article that originally appeared on this blog on 21 Dec 2008.  To the bottom, I have added a new update that discusses my feelings about Mozy over the last year and a half.  Remember, keep your data safe!

I was inspired today after I read Dick Eastman’s blog article (The link for that article is at the bottom of this blog entry).  I realized that I really needed to look into other ways to back up my genealogy.  So, I figured I would try the website that he recommends: Mozy.

You all know that I am a huge fan of backing up your genealogy files – and luckily, I’ve been able to keep it all to a 2GB thumb drive (I use 2 different thumb drives – one for my genealogy and pictures and one for all of my school stuff).
So I headed on over to to see what they have to offer.  Since I am a poor college student, I immediately began searching for a free offer.  Luckily, they have a free service where you can upload 2GB of information.  This is what I am using and it compliments my 2GB thumb drive system perfectly.
I was surprised to read that for only $4.95 a month you could get unlimited storage.  If you think about it – this is SUPER CHEAP!  In a year that is about $60.  With that $60 you can save yourself a ton of headaches, crying spurts, and hair appointments to cover that new bald spot that you gained from pulling your hair out.  You’ll have piece of mind knowing that if tomorrow your computer decides to crash or if a virus gets your computer – all of your important files are safe and sound.  You’ll be able to restore everything.
So, the way Mozy works is that you download the program on your computer.  Then, you just tell it what files you want it to backup, when you want it to backup – and your done.  It is pretty easy to use and very user-friendly.  I’ve never used this service before today, and I figured it out rather easily.
However, (and this is such a small “however”), it will only backup files that are on “fixed” drives. For those of you who don’t know what fixed drives are, they are drives that can’t be disconnected from your computer (So, your thumb drive is not a fixed drive but your C drive is). This was a very small inconvenience that took only seconds of my time to fix: I simply copied the folders that I wanted to my desktop – and now I can easily back up all my genealogy files!
Link to Dick Eastman’s “Backups: A Testimonial” blog entry:
Miriam made a great comment on this blog today.  She said that Carbonite charges only $50 a year.  Plus, Mozy apparently charges you to send a DVD with all of your data on it, should your computer ever crash.  Great point Miriam, and thanks for pointing that out!  And as for your question Miriam, I don’t believe that Mozy will backup external hard drives.  But please, don’t take my word on it since I am just now trying Mozy out.  It might be best to check some of the review sites like CNET to get a better answer.
Update (30 Jul 2010):  I have had Mozy for a long time now – and I LOVE it.  I’ve since upgraded to the paid version and I back up every picture and database to it.  It works great and I’ve never had a problem with it.  There are people who are dedicated to both of the major companies, Mozy and Carbonite.  I think it is similar to searching for the perfect genealogy program – it comes down to preference.

Organizing The Paper Mountain (Part 3)

This third and final part of this series is dedicated to some specific suggestions, tips, and special circumstances that weren’t covered in the other two posts.

What If The Paper Mountain Takes Up An Entire Room?
If your paper mountain looks like Randy Seaver’s Genea-Cave, then this section is just for you.  In this case, it is all about breaking the mountain up into smaller, more manageable chunks.  For example, conquer one corner of the room or one bookcase or even just one shelf.  It will take a big dose of patience and some time, but no matter how large the paper mountain is you can tackle it!

Think of it this way:  When one of my professors assigns a long research paper of about fifteen pages, the first thing I do is break it down into manageable chunks.  For example, I’ll make a deadline for myself to have the notes done by one date and then to write a certain number of pages every week.  By doing this, the huge research paper seems manageable.  I am no longer overwhelmed by trying to write a fifteen page paper.

How Do I Take Care Of My Original Documents?
The original documents that we collect in the course of our research needs to be preserved and protected.  Often times, placing these documents into our regular filing system is not a good idea because our filing systems are not made with all archival quality materials.  So what is a researcher to do?

Denise over at the Family Curator blog discusses a great way to keep our original documents safe while also having the information in our filing system.

How Do I Go Paperless?
The new trend these days is to go paperless.  People now pay their bills online, shop online, and even order pizza online.  This trend is not only environmentally friendly, but it also saves a lot of space and is really easy to back up.  It also has the added benefit of being uploaded onto the internet and therefore can be accessed from anywhere with internet access.

Here are some tips to make your move to paperless as easy as possible:

  • An excellent back up plan is absolutely necessary.  I highly suggestion a remote back up program like Mozy or Carbonite to ensure that your information is safe, even if your computer dies.  To be extra careful, you might also want to back up to an external hard drive.
  • The way you organize on your computer is very similar to the way you would organize your paper files.  The big difference is that everything will be in virtual folders.  There are other options to organize your computer files that should be explored before you decide to make the switch.
  • You will still have to take care of your original paper documents in an archival safe way.
What Should I Do With All The Paper Newsletters, Magazines, and Periodicals?
The answer to this question will vary from situation to situation.  But here are some questions to ask yourself to help you consider what to do with all of them:
  • Is there a website or database where you can access the information?  For example, Family Tree Magazine offers the past issues of the magazine on a CD.  Each CD has a year’s worth of magazine issues.  An added benefit about this is that they are searchable.
  • When was the last time you actually looked through these newsletters, magazines, and periodicals?  If it was more than 6 months, then you probably won’t be looking at them again.  Therefore, it might be worth considering donating these items to a genealogy society, library, or archive.  You can even donate them to a friend or sell them on Ebay
  • If there is an article that you couldn’t imagine letting go of, then by all means make a scanned copy of it and keep it on your computer for reference.  Then donate the paper item.
For the magazines, newsletters, and periodicals that you are planning on keeping, you’ll need to make a plan.  But what should you include in your plan?
  • How long will you keep each item?  Six months is a good rule of thumb.
  • Store these items in labeled magazine boxes.  That way you can quickly find the issue that you are looking for.
  • Stick to your plan.  If you say that you will get rid of that document in six months, then actually do it!  Your plan is useless if you choose not to stick with it.
The Number One Organizing Tip That Isn’t Stressed Enough…
Organization is a P-R-O-C-E-S-S.  You must continually work at staying organized if you actually want to stay organized.  Just because you made your research space look all nice and pretty, doesn’t mean that you are organized.

So instead of feeling depressed after that last paragraph, feel accomplished at the hard work that you’ve put into becoming organized.  Then get determined to make it stick by scheduling time every week, every month – maybe even every day, to keep you organized and feeling great.


Organizing The Paper Mountain (Part 2)

So how is the organizing going so far?  Are you feeling like your moving in the right direction?  In this post I will continue to give you step-by-step directions to conquering the overwhelming paper mountain.  If you want a refresher, read part 1 of this series here.

Step Four
Now that you have your divided piles, you need to consider how you will further sub-divide those files.  To assist you in figuring out how to do this, I have given you more questions to answer that are similar to the questions I asked you in step two.
  • Think of how you divided up your papers.  In your mind, picture how you think about the details of your ancestors.  Do you think about them by the types of records you have?   Do you think about them by individuals or couples?  Your answer to this question will determine how you will further subdivide your piles.
Step Five
It is time to sub-divide all of those piles you have.  I know – it is a huge pain.  I bet you’re completely tired of this boring, mundane task of sorting all of your papers.  Trust me, this is the least fun part of the process.  But it is the most important and is the backbone of your organizational system.

Keep your eyes on the prize: A clean, organized space with every piece of paper in it’s place.  You can find any piece of paper in a matter of seconds.  No matter how big or how small your space is, you enjoy researching in it.

Step Six
The next step is to assess what organizational supplies you will need to store your papers.  Remember the decision you made about using a filing cabinet and file folders or binders and dividers? 

But there are some very important things to consider before you go shopping:
  • Do you want to color code?  This is by far not a requirement, but some people really find it beneficial.  For the most part, I’ve only ever heard of people using color coding when they divide their papers by surname.  Most people will divide their surnames into four or eight categories; these categories correspond with your four grandparents or eight great grandparents.  The four or eight colors that you choose are really up to you – just be sure that these are colors that you can always find at a store.  You don’t want to try to expand your organizational system someday only to find out that the colored supplies you need are no longer being made.
  • Do you want your organizational system to be archival?  This is not a cheap option but rather an investment  in your papers so that they will last into the future.  The archival safe organizational supplies that you use will keep your papers from yellowing and fading over the years (although, eventually the papers will yellow and fade – the point is to extend your paper’s lifetime).
Step Seven
With your list of needed organizational supplies in hand, it is time to get shopping.  Go to your favorite store, online or in person, and buy the supplies on your list.

Here are some of my personal suggestions of supplies you will want to consider.  I am currently using or have used each of these products:
  • My aunt used to have this three drawer black filing cabinet.  The two bottom drawers are made for holding your files, while the smaller top drawer can be used to store the box of extra file folders.  The only reason she got rid of this cabinet is because she needed a bigger one.
  • If you don’t have too many files yet, then I would recommend getting this stackable filing drawer.  I like these because they are lightweight and easy to store out of the way.  
  • Archival file folders are the way to go if you want to try and prolong the life of your files.
  • If color coding is your thing, then these colorful file folders are for you.
  • I love binders and I use them for just about everything from school, calendars, bills, and organizing my paper files.  I really like this heavy duty one inch binder, although you could always get a two inch or three inch binder.  However, if you use a binder that is more than three inches wide then it will be bee too heavy and the pages will be hard to turn.
  • If you get binders, you’ll also need dividers.  I highly recommend getting over sized dividers so that you can see the divider even if you are using sheet protectors.  You also might want to consider getting archival quality sheet protectors to prolong the life of your files.

Note: I want to apologize for the delay in releasing this post.  I was planning on having all three released by today. However, life got in the way and my mom is in the hospital again.  But don’t worry, I’ll get part three released by Tuesday.

Organizing The Paper Mountain (Part 1)

As genealogists, we collect a lot of data and with all of that data comes lots of paper.  At first the paper flow is manageable, but the paper monster quickly takes control.  So how do you tame the paper monster and get back in control?

Over the next week or so, I will be doing a series of posts that will help you gain control of the paper.  If you follow my advice then at the end of this series, you will have gained control of the paper monster.  Each post will have an easy to follow step-by-step approach to solving the paper chaos.  

Step One
The first step to solving any problem is to admit that you have a problem.  The excuse that you have “organized chaos” is not going to work here.  Don’t feel bad either – this is an incredibly common problem that  every genealogist eventually faces.

Step Two
Before you can begin the process of organization, you have to establish a plan.  So to help you define what your plan is, here are some questions to consider:

  • How do you think of your ancestors?  Do you think about them in terms of surname, couples, or record types?  Your answer to this question will determine how you will divide your paperwork.
  • Do you like file folders and a filing cabinet or do you prefer binders and dividers?  Each method has benefits and disadvantages, so it is really a matter of preference.
Step Three
With your plan now in place, it is time to start separating all of your papers into piles.  This will probably take some time and lots of space – so get comfy on the floor or at the kitchen table and get busy.  The way the piles are organized is based upon how you think about your ancestors.  So organize your papers by surname, record type, or couple.

Today you’re closer to your goal of conquering the paper beast.  In the next post, I will discuss buying your organizational supplies and go into more detail about the various options in organizing the paper work.

If you have any specific questions, thoughts, or comments then please leave me a comment or send me an email.  I am always open to any suggestions, comments, or questions.

5 Organization Mistakes To Avoid

At the start of a new year, everyone is making resolutions. One of the most common resolutions in the genealogy community is to finally get organized. While we may begin energetic, excited, and with the best intentions, things don’t always continue that way. Before long, you’re overwhelmed, bored, and frustrated with trying to get organized. Then the piles return, you can’t find that birth certificate of Great Aunt Martha, and you feel like pulling your hair out or hitting your head against a wall.

In order to avoid this unpleasant situation, here are 5 organization mistakes to avoid:
  1. One size does not fit all. What works for one person may not work for you and what works for you may not work for someone else. You have to find a system that seems natural and makes sense to you. You might even need to tweak some systems to make them work for you.
  2. Look at the pros and cons of each organizational system you find. This one is very similar to #1. It is important to analyze the pros and cons of each system and pick the one that fits you best. Some things will matter more to you than it does to someone else. Some things will be deal breakers that aren’t to someone else. Pick the one that fits your needs and your organizational priorities.
  3. It takes time and work to stay organized. But the time that you put in will be small in comparison to the time that you save. Being organized means that you can find what you need to find when you need to find it. You’ll be more efficient and get more research done.
  4. Buy organizational supplies after you have assessed what you have and what your needs are. Too often people get all excited to get organized that they head straight toward the stores to buy supplies when they don’t even know what they need. Until you’ve assessed what your needs are and figured out a plan, you can’t go buying supplies.
  5. Reassess your needs every so often. Needs can change as your research progresses or as time passes. Therefore, every once in a while, you’ll need to assess whether or not your organizational system is still working.
Happy Organizing and Happy Researching!
Further reading:

How I Use Zoho To Stay Organized

Disclaimer: This article contains information about a website called Zoho. While I very much like the website, my opinion was not swayed by the company in any way. I was not contacted by the comapny to write about them or was I paid in any way for writing this article. Honestly – I just love this website and find it extremely useful.

One of my biggest problems when doing research is that I am doing research all over the place. I never know when I’ll have free time at my boyfriend’s house to do a search or when I’ll have free time after studying to do a search or two. When I am researching, I used to write everything down on regular lined paper but I didn’t always want to lug around all of my paper to all of these different places. I knew I had to come up with another way of doing things.

As I was brainstorming ideas, I remembered a website that my boyfriend’s dad told me about: Zoho is a website that provides a huge variety of “collaboration and productivity apps” for free! These apps include a word processor, a spreadsheet creator, a presentation creator, an email service, a notebook (similar to the old Google Notebook), a wiki, a planner, and more! Each of these apps are free of charge and everything you save on there can be accessed anywhere there is an internet connection. This was exactly what I needed.
So I took my the ancestor that I was working on at the time, Friedrich Harney, and began to create my notes in Zoho Writer (the word processor). The sheet I create is unique and fits my needs perfectly because it is 100% adaptable. I included a breakdown of the major events in Friedrich Harney’s lifetime, along with a breakdown of the sources for each event. This is extremely helpful since I hadn’t picked up my Harney line in a long while and I couldn’t exactly remember why I thought certain things about him. On this sheet, I also write about what I need to discover about him and any theories I have about him. This sheet provides me with an “at-a-glance” look at Friedrich Harney as a whole – including what I have on him, what I am missing, and any theories I may have. Another benefit? I can easily print this page out and place it in my notebook.
I also created a research calendar for Friedrich Harney in Zoho Sheet (spreadsheet program). If I wanted to I could create a Zoho Notebook for him that includes “clippings” from different websites. I could use Zoho Chat to collaborate with another researcher without having to download an instant messaging program like AIM or Windows Messenger. The possibilities are huge and adaptable to your needs.
In an age where everyone is beginning to move things online, I highly suggest that you check this website out. You can login with either a Google or Yahoo account, or you can create a Zoho account (I recommend doing this since it is required to have a Zoho account when using their apps in Facebook, etc.).

A Busy Genealogist’s Plan

Let’s face it – while we would all love to spend most of our day doing genealogy or genealogy related activities, this just isn’t possible for the majority of us.  We have family and work responsibilities along with a long to-do list of errands to run and tasks to complete.  Most of the time, you oly have ten to thirty minutes a day (if that!) to squeeze in some genealogy.  To make matters worse, you spend the little time you do have for genealogy figuring out what to do next!

But it isn’t like this topic isn’t discussed often.  Nearly every major genealogy blog and magazine has dedicated at least one articule to this topic.  We’ve all read the columns, and yet, the problem remains the same.
So what is a busy genealogist to do?
Make a plan in the form of a “quick” to-do list.  In other words, make a list of things that you can do in a short amount of time so that you are making progress (even if it is small) and you feel like your research is going somewhere.  If you have this list handy, then whenever you get ten or twenty extra minutes, you can complete a task.
What exactly do you put on this list?

The list should be personalized to suit your needs, but the general idea can remain the same.  I have included some general ideas for you here that can easily be personalized for your research.
  • Scan ten photos.
  • Learn about where you can locate a specific record that you need.
  • File ten papers.
  • Print an updated family group sheet/pedigree chart/research plan/etc.
  • Create a research plan for a particular ancestor or couple
  • Read a genealogy blog to learn about something new.
By having a plan like this, you can ensure that you will make progress in your research without having to devote a large chunk of time.