Genealogical Filing Systems (National Institute)

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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 ($).

Getting Started - Some Basic Points[edit | edit source]

Storage of Your Materials[edit | edit source]

First of all, you must designate an area in your home that should be used predominantly for storage of materials dealing with your genealogical project. Obviously, it would be terrific to be able to dedicate an entire room in your home to your hobby of genealogy. You could have a desk for your working surface and have file cabinets and shelving for all your materials.

This is not normally possible. Often, work is done on the dining room table and a closet in a guest room is used for storage. Again, establish acceptable disciplines for your situation, but whatever that is, make sure everything dealing with your hobby is returned to your storage location after you have worked with it. This will prevent you from losing time looking for a certain document you know you have. ‘Why isn’t it here?’ you’ll ask yourself. Save precious time, be consistent when planning your storage location.

Binders[edit | edit source]

You must decide early on in your project how you will store your materials. You want to store your precious documents, photos and family mementoes in a manner easy to locate, but protected at the same time.

I find a three ring binder very handy to store documents and forms that are in active use. You can buy lined paper for notes and photocopy paper that is already three-hole punched. Or you can easily punch the holes yourself. Use standard divider tabs to separate sections.

Each different type of form you choose to use should have a section dedicated to that form.

You may initially start with just a 1” binder. Eventually this may be changed to 2” binders for each of your ancestral lineage. When starting this project you don’t know where it will lead you, so the ultimate storing method will grow with your needs. Don’t try to anticipate what they may ultimately be.

Binders are handy because, in addition to their expandability, they establish a consistency in the size of paper you will use. Try to do all your note keeping on standard 8½” x 11” paper. If you use papers of all sizes, eventually you will lose some of them. You may sometimes write some notes on smaller pieces. Prior to storing them in your binder, staple them to the standard size paper or insert them in a page protector. If not much information is written, simply re-write it.

As your project grows you will need to make changes in the way you store your materials. If you choose a color coded system for storing materials of different ancestral lines, you can match your binders and your file folders again to provide consistency.

File Folders and Envelopes[edit | edit source]

Binders can be used for your active documents. You may want to use file folders and/or envelopes to store documents you are no longer using. This may also be for correspondence received and replied to.

Are you getting the feeling yet that you’ll be accumulating a lot of paper? YES, you will. So get a filing system going! Let’s consider the filing needs for your inactive documents.

This is the way my research system is set up. I use color coded file folders combined with envelopes. I was determined to find my grandparent’s brothers and sisters and all their descendants.

I chose four different color file folders, one for each of my grandparents’ families. The first folder for each group is for documents dealing with all ancestors of the ancestral lineage prior to my grandparents.

The second file folder, is for documents dealing with the parents of my grandparents or a document not specially for one of their siblings. In other words this may be for several children of that family or general documents regarding the entire family.

Next, are found an appropriate number of file folders, still of that same color, for each of my grandparents’ brothers and sisters.

Each file folder is labeled appropriately with their name and their reference number.

If you have a lot of information stored in a specific file, you may wish to divide that file further. Set up files for each of the children in that particular family.

Each file folder holds an envelope labeled with the same name and reference number found on the file folder.

Now what do you store in the file? Place in it all inactive material. For example, you will have sent out letters requesting information. If you have received a reply, that letter is no longer active, so it can be filed in the appropriate file folder. Letters that still require action should not be filed in these folders at this time.

General information regarding families or individuals will also be received or found. If they are not being actively used they should also be filed in their respective folders.

And what do you store in the envelope? I file everything that is precious in nature. Later on you may want to write a family book or produce a family video. You will want many visual items to breathe life into your book or video. In each envelope, store items you may eventually want to use in a family book or family video tape.

These items could consist of certificates of birth, marriage and death or of other important events. You may have other precious documents such as letters, postcards, school, health or law reports and newspaper clippings. You may have found photographs or other documents recounting family stories.

Be a pack rat and save everything you find. You just don’t know what projects you will want to undertake in the future. Although something may seem unnecessary or not required at the time, later you may regret having disposed of it.

Again my objective was to keep track of all descendants of my grandparents. Naturally, determine how you will set up your own system depending on your personal needs.

Prepare four groups of file folders with envelopes, for each of your four grandparents’ families. These four groups should each be a different color. When using different colors, you can easily spot file folders that are filed incorrectly.

An additional file folder, for each of the four groups and of the same color scheme, should exist as an active file. In these, keep all unanswered correspondence you have sent out regarding someone of that grandparents’ family.

You may have requested information. It is important to check which letters have not had replies. A second request may need to be sent.

Additional file folders, not the same color as used for families, should be used for miscellaneous items. For example, you will need one folder to store all correspondence you’ve received, but not yet answered or dealt with.

Another folder should store all receipts for expenses incurred. Any general correspondence from other sources should go into another file. And finally you should have a miscellaneous file for everything else.

I’m a real pack rat, but it’s surprising how often I was pleased that I had not thrown something out.

Another index that should be prepared, for binders as well as file folders, is to list what type of documents are found in each section of your binders. Also what type of documents are found in each group of file folders.

The Storage Location form can be used to list sections in your binders and what is stored in each, as well as descriptions of documents stored in file folders and envelopes.

File Cabinets and Boxes[edit | edit source]

You have organized your materials and precious documents, now where do you store all of these binders and file folders? If possible choose a shelf for your binders. You will then be able to remove the one you wish to work on easily.

For your file folders, it’s great if you have room in a drawer of a file cabinet. If this is not possible, simply choose a box of an appropriate size to store your file folders. It is preferable if this box has a cover. This will prevent items from being dropped into files by error. It will also keep the light and dust out.

On the index listing where documents are located or stored, make notes listing what can be found in file cabinet drawers and boxes should there be more than one in use.

Recap[edit | edit source]

This section on consistency is very important. Just like everyone at one time or another, I’m sure you have said “I know I have this, but why can’t I find it?” We’ve all done it. We put things in a logical place when we store them, but why is it not so logical when we go to find them. Who knows?

It is a fact that you will accumulate mountains of paper. Without a good filing system it is impossible to easily find what you want.

Eliminate that problem. Prepare indexes for both abbreviations and storage locations. You will make your genealogical life a lot easier.

Whenever you introduce a new abbreviation make sure to record it in your index. And when you change or add a storage location, also record it in your index.

Periodically, you may wish to re-write your index to put your abbreviations in alphabetical order. By keeping this index up-to-date you will ensure that you will apply consistency to your documents.

And when you make notes, always write more than what you think is necessary. How many times have you looked at a note you’ve written for yourself and wondered what it meant. Keep in mind that these notes are not just for you, they will also be for those who become the family historians in the future.


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 Studie. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at [

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