Southern California Genealogical Society

Point of View: The Hurrieder I Go
By Jean Chapman Snow

I envy those organized people who can immediately lay their hands on any bit of genealogical data they need. For years I’ve tried to organize, but the world is too filled with fascinating trails I must follow.I’m like the easily-distracted puppy who drops his squeaky toy for a leaf floating by, then drops the leaf when mistress calls “Walkies!” Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Every flat surface in my small apartment is covered with books and half-read magazines. There are clipboards and folders of poetry, articles and fiction in progress, for who knows when the Muse will next strike?

I have too many ancestors and I wish they’d pick up after themselves. I’m disheartened by partially sorted piles of paper, teensy scraps from pre-computer days, oversized documents, photos, photocopies and detritus of all kinds. How do I organize them?

I had labeled three-ring binders with family names. Sitting on my bookshelves are four notebooks: Edward Chapman of Ipswich to Ezekiel, Ezekiel to my father, and so on.

Others contain research aids and information about Pensions and Wars, Census, Sampubco for wills, various libraries, The Searcher (new), Chapman Family Assn. Quarterly (my first columns), and various other subjects.

Plastic sheet protectors hold most of the material in the notebooks. I can slip small notes into those already filled, and I find it easier to shuffle quickly through them when I’m searching for something.But I still have difficulty finding the one I need.

The problem is that I temporarily shove loose papers into the corresponding notebook. You know how temporary temporarily is! The next time I pull the notebook off the shelf, it’s like opening Fibber McGee’s closet (am I dating myself?). Everything tumbles out, I shove it back, and the mess becomes messier.Oh, dear. And now my New York State notebook has given birth to quadruplets: Otsego, Oneida, Columbia and Duchess Counties!

Bill Dollarhide’s method [1] to the rescue. I finally have my first Chapman notebook organized his way. Now that I can quite easily find an early document, I'm anxious to continue the Dollarhide way. He says that when we first began our genealogy hunt, we probably could put everything we had into one neat three-ring binder. But over time, our papers piled higher and higher. And I’m sure, like unused coat hangers in a closet, they multiply on their own.

Dollarhide’s method, though it takes a certain bit of preparatory organization, is simple. Your collection, he says, can be broken down into three different categories. He suggests first throwing your entire paper collection into one large pile in the center of a floor (gulp). Preferably one you can temporarily keep children and dogs from. Then begin separating the sheets into three piles.

1. Notes and Documents.

This is by far the largest part of your collection, photocopies of pages from books, copies of census extracts, birth, marriage and death certificates, deeds, tax lists, residences, and so on. The paper here pertains to all of your families, which will consist of many surnames.

Most of these records are residence events, which may be a military record, a deed, or other certificate. Think of this entire category as your paper database, no computer required. At least not yet.

2. Compiled Sheets.

This is your collection of family group sheets, pedigree charts, surname lists, descendant lists and so on—any compiled genealogical information that came from you or from other sources. Dollarhide suggests beginning with this one, as the easiest todeal with. Make file folders or notebooks to separate the various types. You can put family group sheets into one book or folder, and the same with the other charts and lists.

3. Research Aids.

These are your “How To” lists: libraries in a particular state, maps, lists of societies, clubs, commercial vendors. It also includes your personal library of books and back issues of magazines.

Since most of these aids can be organized by geographical origin, make file folders or notebooks to collect all papers that relate to, say, Ohio. Label it “Ohio.” Your research books, of course, line up on a bookshelf. However, if any of these books contain information about your families, you need to photocopy those pages and include copies within the Notes and Documents category. So these Research Aids, which are your personal “library,” should also organize quickly.

Dollarhide suggests taking a break after doing categories 2 and 3. Treat yourself for a job well begun, dinner out, a chocolate sundae, a snooze before the Boob Tube. Whatever turns you on.

Now comes the hard part, organizing Notes and Documents. When you are rested and fresh, tackle the Notes and Documents pile. It’s probably huge. Says Dollarhide, the important thing here is to free yourself from a “family-oriented” way of thinking. Develop a “surname oriented” filing system.

Your notes and documents will have papers for three types of people:

  1. Ancestors
  2. Collaterals
  3. Suspicious

Here are his three rules:

  1. Control the sheet size. Use 8½-by-11 inch paper. Even small notes can be taped to a standard sheet. He likes pre-punched three-hole paper because it saves time when you return home. You can file the sheets immediately (Then you don’t end up with Fibberitis, as I do. Or a pauper. I’m the one who keeps those Mega Office stores in business, you know).

  2. Separate the sheets by surname, any by that name—family, those who married into the family, collaterals and suspicious. Write the surname at the top of the page and devote the entire page to notes for that surname or names connected with that surname.

  3. Finally, separate these surname sheets by their place of origin. At the top of the page, following the name, add the place. For example, one surname folder or book could contain all the Connecticut Chapmans in one section, Massachusetts Chapmans in another, and so on. Use the post office two letter state designation (CT, MA). Places can be broken down further into counties, if necessary.

These sheets are better organized in chronological order, i.e., as the surname moved from one state or area to the other. As a final step, give every sheet a page number which will allow you to retrieve and return sheets to their proper position.

Example: CHAPMAN/CT/24, which means Chapman surname book, Connecticut section, and within that section, page 24. (I also found creating an index for the book helped me scan for documents more quickly, since at times I have only a vague idea of what exactly I’m looking for).

Within a section you assign numbers on a “first-come, first-served” basis. Then as you come upon more information, you don’t need to put 1790 records before 1870. That would require shuffling and changing numbers. You collect randomly, he says, so file randomly.

There are many other valuable suggestions in both Dollarhide's article and his book [2]. If his style is not quite your cuppa, check the same Nov/Dec 1999 Heritage Quest issue, which contains two other articles on painless (well, almost painless) organization.

I certainly look forward to uttering fewer cries of “A-argh!” as papers spill on the floor from a notebook or "Doggone it! I just had that document in my hand yesterday!"

I think you can teach an old dog new tricks.


1. I first found William Dollarhide’s article, Genealogy Record Keeping, or “Now that I’ve found it, what do I do with it?” on the Heritage Quest Web site. It was also printed in the Heritage Quest quarterly, Nov/Dec 1999.

2. William Dollarhide, Managing a Genealogical Project, Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore.


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