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?


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4 responses to “Do You Really Need Paper Files?

  1. I’m “old school,” or maybe I’m just old. I love paper. I love the feel of paper and I love the idea that there’s a physical connection between my ancestors and me. No matter that my ancestors never touched that particular piece of paper: they touched some piece of paper nearly identical to the one I’m holding (if it’s a photocopy or a printout of a digital scan). That being said, I love digital images because they can be enlarged and combed through for every last detail, evaluated, and sometimes manipulated to enhance the handwriting or the image, if it’s a photograph. As far as organization: it’s much easier for me (old school/old) to arrange, organize, and file actual papers than organize digital files. I hope I never have to do it one way or the other, though, and maybe with time, I’ll be thrilled to go completely digital. Maybe.

  2. Elyse,
    I am a pack-rat by nature, but I’m working on my own 12-step program to reduce my hard copy files. I am a One Note user myself and it has been immensely helpful in breaking my hard-copy habit. One thing I HAVE TO EMPHASIZE is if you do go paperless, use back-up protocols that include on-site back-up, off-site back-up, and cloud storage.

    That being said, no digital storage can compare to holding the letter sent to my wife’s GG Granfather to his sister about their family history…priceless.

    • True, I forgot to mention that. But yes, having back ups and lots of back up plans is important regardless of whether or not your research is paper or digital.

  3. For all of you who are partly, or mostly digital genealogists and have doubts about backing up your work in multiple places, I recommend you read the many columns Dick Eastman has written on the subject.

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