Fun with Genealogy Files Part 1

Mr. W2L4A and I downsized earlier this year. Our smaller home came equipped with a smaller space for storing genealogy records.

Okay. This is the perfect opportunity to tackle overflowing files I’ve been meaning to get to for years. And make liberal use of cloud storage. And arrange my genealogy files in such a way that I can retrieve any item in mere minutes. And immediately know the next step to take when researching each ancestor.

A pipe dream? Not so!

Here’s the system I created:

I started by making a new manila folder for each of my direct line ancestors. I used the same format to label each one:

SURNAME [space] [hyphen] [space] First Middle
Year of birth [space] [hyphen] [space] Year of death

When I didn’t know or wasn’t sure of a birth/death year, I typed a question mark (?) to mark the place.

They look so pretty when they're new

They look so pretty when they’re new

Next I printed a Family Group Sheet on blue paper for each direct line ancestor in my paternal line and a Family Group Sheet on (you guessed it!) pink paper for each of mom’s DLAs.

Making a list and checking it twice

Making a list and checking it twice

Then I made a hanging file folder label for each of my direct line surnames and put the associated manila folders inside. This time around (I’ve been working on my tree for many years and have revamped my system a time or two) I put the paternal files on the left side of the drawer and the maternal files on the right. Okay, I did that in theory.

Because I have WAY too many genealogy files to fit in one drawer! My Official Goal is to clean them up and pare them down so everybody fits in one drawer in my lateral file cabinet by the end of 2015. If I can, I mean, when I have done that, I’ll use my “extra” drawer for personal files and storage of filing supplies and related items. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

After I’d prepared file folders and printed Family Group Sheets, the next step was to match the names and dates on the file folder labels to the names and dates on my Genealogy at a Glance spreadsheet.

First up alphabetically was Françoise ADAM, my 6th great-grandmother. At this point I know very little about her. Her first husband Jean BOUCHÉ died in 1737. On 02 Sep 1739 the widow Françoise married my widowed 6th great-grandfather Jean SCHMITT in Boulay, Moselle, Lorraine, France. The couple had at least three children together. Shortly after the birth of her last child in 1745, Françoise died. Her file folder label reads:

ADAM – Françoise
? – 1745

Before putting Françoise’s blue family group sheet in her manila folder, I wrote “my 6th great grandmother” next to her name. That way I (or whoever else reads her file) will immediately know my relationship to this particular ancestor. Then I put her manila file folder in the Adam hanging file folder and added both to the paternal side of my file cabinet drawer.

I had to create a new hanging file for the next name; BRUM. Catherine BRUM is my 6th great-grandmother, the wife of Nicolas GROSS. As of today, that’s all I know about her. Her file folder label reads:

BRUM – Catherine
? – ?

The BUKMAKOWSKI folder already had lots of stuff in it. I added my new manila file folders to the front of existing hanging file and returned everything to the file cabinet. I’ll revisit (and dig deeper into) each folder as I progress through this project.

Some of the files were pretty messy and it took tons of willpower to leave them as is. I just kept reminding myself that first I needed to create a place holder for every direct line ancestor. Later I will address each individual folder. And enjoy the treasures they may contain.

A few times I came across manila file folders I had created previously using a different labelling format. Ugh! I chalked these false starts up to a learning curve, shook my head, replaced old files with new files and moved on.

I also encountered file folder labels with yellow highlighter drawn on the names they contained. This was another method I had tried in the past. That plan was to differentiate direct line ancestors’ folders from the cluster-folk information I had accumulated. Now the only files I plan to keep in my file cabinet are those of my direct line ancestors.

Frequently referring to my Genealogy at a Glance spreadsheet was really helpful. When I reached the PERSSON files, I became confused by what appeared to be a missing generation. But the issue turned out to be that pesky Swedish patronymic naming system. Which meant one of my Family Group Sheets had to be reprinted. The Perssons convinced me splitting my maternal/paternal files was a wise choice.

Whoops - should have been on pink paper!

Whoops – should have been on pink paper!

It was super hard not to stop, drop, and clean up files as I was changing the tabs or adding file folders. Occasionally I’d see something that would make me want to skip on over to Ancestry or FamilySearch for “a minute or two”. But I really wanted to see how all my freshly labeled file folders would look in the file cabinet drawer, so I resisted both urges.

File Drawers

No peeking inside until the task is further along!

This genealogy organization project took the better part of a Saturday, but I feel much better about my new file set up! So much better in fact, that I knew instinctively what to tackle next.

I’ll share that next step in an upcoming edition of Fun with Genealogy Files!

7 thoughts on “Fun with Genealogy Files Part 1

  1. Laura–

    This level of organization boggles my mind! And I admire it. One thing about your article confuses me, though. “I put the paternal files on the left side of the drawer and the maternal files on the right.” Your photo looks wide enough to have two sides. So you might have physical room for two sets of files side by side. In the case of a traditional 4-drawer file cabinet, which is what I’ve got, there’s just one set of files, one after the other. All I could do there would be to put the LABELS for paternal side on the left side of the file tabs, and for the maternal side on the right side of the file tabs, and put one of them after the other. Can you clarify for us what you meant by this sentence, please, and speak to the question of those of us who have the traditional file cabinet? I do not have room for anything beyond what I’ve described. So far, I’ve got a drawer for each family, but haven’t disciplined myself to organize just by direct ancestors.

    Where is your info for collateral ancestors going to go??

    Thanks for this wonderful article; it’s a great motivator!


    • Doris,

      You are too kind – thank you for the compliment! Yes, my file cabinets are lateral which makes the side-by-side arrangement possible for me. But a four-drawer vertical file cabinet could work just as well.

      My suggestion would be to use two drawers for your paternal lines and two for your maternal lines, assuming the “stuff” is divisible that way. I would not mix the file tabs left and right for two reasons. First because it is more challenging to look back and forth along the tops of the folders than it is to follow along a straight line of tabs. Secondly, I wouldn’t want to open more drawers than necessary to locate a particular file.

      I practice cluster genealogy, so moving to a direct-line only filing system is a change for me too. But I’ve been gearing more and more that way with my computer files, so it makes sense to keep the two (physical and virtual) consistent. My collaterals are filed with their corresponding direct lines. I’ll share details about how I’ve done that going forward, so I hope you’ll stay tuned.

      I’m really happy to hear you found the post motivating. We all have to find our own “best” method, so feel free to tweak my system to suit your needs. And keep me posted on your progress!



  2. I am exhausted just reading it! But I’m going to hold your feet to the fire for your “official goal” (though I think you MEANT to say 2014, right? LOL)

    Now I realize that my filing system pretty much looks like crap now. Thanks.


    • Hi Jen,

      If only I could be done by the end of this year! It’s definately going to take more than a few weeks to bring this stuff to the level of perfection I hope to achieve. And you’ll be partly responsible for keeping me to task. LOL



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