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5. Organize Information

Table of contents


  1. How to Begin
  2. What to do First
  3. Choose a Strategy
  4. Find Information
  5. Organize Information
  6. Learn More
  7. Bibliography
  8. Genealogy and Family History Glossary

As you gather information on your family, you will want to record it in some way.

You will print out or make copies of the information you find and make scans or collect images in digital format. Almost all genealogists use the computer to store and retrieve the information they have gathered. But manual methods of organization are still useful for dealing with the piles of paper you have gathered. Preserving precious family artifacts such as paper documents and photographs is important and must be done in an appropriate way to ensure their safekeeping for future generations.

And finally, as you organize your data, you must keep track of the sources you consult.

Making Copies

Follow these guidelines when copying materials:

  • Record complete source information for the copy. If it is from a book, copy the pages that have the title and publishing information, and make sure you include the page number(s).
  • Record information about the repository (library, archives, etc.) in which you found the item.
  • When copying a page or file from the Internet, record the original filename (especially if you rename the file for your own purpose) and the complete Internet address.
  • Understand the copying permissions granted for each item you copy. It is NOT the case that everything on the Internet is free to use. Copyright and intellectual property rights apply on the Internet, just as they do for print and other materials.

Pedigree Charts

Use a blank pedigree chart to record your family history details. Record your own information as person number one, your father as number two, your mother as three, your father’s father as four, etc. Enter as many details as you know, such as full name, date and place of birth, marriage and death, even if that information is only approximate.

Family Charts

The family chart lets you record data about a specific single family. You can document the names of parents and children and, for each, their birth, marriage and death dates and places. As with pedigree charts, record what you know in the family group sheet.

Take copies of these charts with you as you visit a research centre. It will help you remember what you already have found, and will let consultants see what you know at a glance. They may provide you with sources to help you locate the missing details to fill in the gaps. Make sure to make copies of your most up-to-date charts for future research trips.

Download a blank pedigree chart [PDF 192 KB] or family chart [PDF 278 KB] in Adobe Acrobat format and print copies of it. ( See: Download alternative formats).

Computer Methods

You will want to save the electronic data you find on the web. You should come up with a method of naming and storing files so that you can find them again easily.

One method that works is to use the directory and subdirectory capabilities of your computer. You can create a directory for the major branches of your family and then within that directory, subdirectories for the unique surnames you have in each branch. You may also create directories for images such as maps, subdivided by region or country.

Standardized file naming is useful. However you decide to name your electronic files, choose a method that works for you and be consistent. As you collect more and more data, well-structured files are easier to find and to browse through on your computer.

Many genealogy applications are available on the market today for most operating systems and the interfaces of many come in multiple languages. These software packages let you do the following:

  • assemble and organize your family data;
  • produce reports and charts; and
  • exchange information and files with colleagues.

Comparison websites will help you make a choice:

Many genealogy software packages have free trial versions that you can download. Start out with an application you are comfortable with. As your research progresses, you may wish to switch to a more robust application. This can be done as long as you have a software application that respects the genealogical data standard GEDCOM.

Whatever you do, BACK UP YOUR DATA!

Manual Methods

Organizing your “stuff” can be a chore, but it is better to do it before the piles of paper become overwhelming.

Filing systems may be simple or complex, but all serve the same purpose: to help you find that piece of paper you jotted that note on three years ago. Filing systems are also very individual, so choose one that is easy for you to use and maintain.

Learn more about filing systems:

Preserving Artifacts

Storing your family’s valuable original documents, photographs and memorabilia is an important part of preserving your family history. Here are some basic facts:

Paper: Paper can last for three or four years or up to 500 years. This depends on the materials from which the paper was made and how acid those materials are. Newsprint is notoriously acid in content: everyone is familiar with newsprint “burning up” and turning yellow with age.

Photographs: Early black-and-white photos last longer than the modern colour photos, which have a propensity to change colour over time. Many genealogists now scan their family photographs and store the digital images on their computers, which they back up, of course.

Artifacts: Many families wish to preserve and store safely their memorabilia items such as games, toys, dolls, and paintings. Some museums and other institutions offer basic advice free of charge. The website of the Canadian Conservation Institute answers many questions on how to preserve your family’s treasures.

Cite Your Sources!

It is one of the most important things a genealogist must do. It lets you do the following:

  • return to the source where you got the information;
  • preserve the details of what you used, when you cannot return to the source;
  • avoid checking the same source twice for the same information;
  • assess conflicting data by weighing the accuracy of different sources; and
  • provide exact information about your sources when you share information.

Search for guides on citation in AMICUS, using authors, titles or subject terms.

Finished Product

Most genealogists want to ensure that their work is preserved and, one hopes, continued by and accessible to others. There are several ways to preserve your research:

  • Write a family history to be shared with family members and genealogical societies. Such histories were often published. Library and Archives Canada has collected many Family Histories including books that describe the process of writing a family history.
  • Create a family website and share your genealogical data within the website. Several software applications are available that will extract standardized genealogy data from your genealogy database and create web pages for you. See Computer Methods for more information on this.
  • Ensure that your research will be in good hands after you are gone. Speak with your local library, genealogical or historical society about what they might be willing to take and preserve. If you have a younger relative who is interested in continuing the work on your family history, stipulate in your will that all your research material be passed on to that relative. In all cases, make sure your next of kin knows what you want done with your research.