03 August 2012

Organisation Is Not a Dirty Word

Stop what you're doing and look around you. Where are you? Are you at a clean desk with your research neatly filed? Do you have your correspondence up to date? Can I ask you for any part of your family history and you can put your hands on it in less than 30 seconds? If I tell you to get in the car right now and head to the library, are you prepared with a list of questions and resources you need to look for? Oh well, good. I guess that's the end of today's post, enjoy your weekend!

What did you say? Oh, you can't find the top of your desk? There's more loose paper and stacked notebooks than there is an orderly filing system? You can find anything on your research, but you will have to move a few boxes around and it's in a couple of places? You spend a day (or a week) scouring your papers to make a list for on-site research? And you still forget half of what you need? You've got a pile of duplicate records, because you can't remember ordering them?

You are not alone. In fact, this past week has made organisation the topic of discussion in many places. It's understandable. We're halfway through the year and summer is coming to an end. You may have recognised your lack of a system long before now, but you let it grow until your family is threatening a spot on "Hoarders" is in your future. Many people are in this same boat. I'm not, but I'm awesome. Actually, what's awesome is a book called "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey. If you haven't tried it, please do. I read that book once a year to refresh. The link takes you to the book on FranklinCovey's website. FranklinCovey is a company that Mr. Covey co-founded based on his book and the organisational principles of Benjamin Franklin. I not only read the book, I use their day planner. It works for me, it could work for you.... or it could not. In the end, how you handle your filing system is your own. Today I'm going to tell you about mine and, within the next couple of weeks, give you some tips to make yours. After that, you're on your own (or just come visit me in one of the genealogy groups I frequent).

My system
You know, I've actually covered my system before. Basically, I have a hybrid system. I'm a Nervous Nellie when it comes to backups and I have several. On my post on preserving photos, I covered my theories on backups and how many I have. I prefer to keep digital a lot of records I know I can find again like census records. I use citations on Ancestry to keep track of where to find records again by adding in sources from outside Ancestry's system. Census records are kept together by decade on my computer with a file name "State_County_Town_District_Page" format so that if I find a "new" record and start adding it, my computer will show in auto-fill the name and stop my duplicating it. I use paint to add a mark to each name on a document that I've added to an individual's profile so I know who I still need to work on in any given group. My paper filing system has a blue page that lists all photos, heirlooms and documents housed elsewhere. I keep all my photos together in archive boxes, so I just list which box and group # that person's photos are in. All digitised copies are noted on the blue page with proper citation. You don't need to see the documents and photos to know how I got my "facts", but you can when you need to. I have red pages for brick walls that lists all the places I've searched for information. "New" idea pops up, I check the page. If it's already on there, I save myself a goose chase. Not, time to dig deeper. Yellow pages are rare, but those are for my guesses. Rumors and possible hints that could be who I am looking for, but not proven. This helps me when I find supporting documents that may help to prove that link. It also helps whoever may take up my research to know that I have looked into those possible links and what my thoughts on them so far are.

I keep an action file that is on my desk (the only permanent item I allow to clutter the top) and use it daily. I use a notebook as part of the action file that has perforated pages for easy tear out. I log every search, every new hint. I take all the information down for the day, separate pages for each individual or family group. Those pages can be filed in my paper system when I put that search aside, or they can be transcribed to my digital files for permanent storage. If I plan to take this group of people to a physical location (cemetery, library, courthouse), they stay in the notebook. By using a notebook, nothing goes missing. By keeping the search focused on a specific surname or family group, I keep my wandering to a minimum. As I start on people I've researched before, I pull their file and add it to the action file log. I touch everything I have on them again so I know what I'm missing and what I have. If I am going anywhere (family reunion, out of town research, whatever) I grab that one folder and know I have all that I need for my trip. I am confident that if I told a complete stranger to pull up all the information on any relative of their choosing, they could find it all within minutes. They could read it and continue research without having to retrace my search steps.

I have a schedule of clean ups. My action file is digitised once a week. I check and update my backups once a month (sometimes sooner). I touch everything in my files once every three months. Also, I research almost every day, except Sunday. It's important to have a research-free day to keep your mind sharp. And this system took a lot of practice and work. Trial and error in the beginning and a deep understanding of how to keep myself motivated. I bring up Mr. Covey's book, because it helped me open the doors of organisation in all areas of my life. It's all about balance. Sometimes I fall, but I'm only human.

So how do you get started?
Getting organised is building a habit. I forget where, but I recall hearing that a habit takes almost 3 weeks to become second nature. So when I started writing this post, I decided to break it into a series to give you time to build the small steps into one big habit.

This week, I want you to clear a workspace. A place that is specifically set up for your research is essential. You want a comfortable chair, a flat writing space (or computer space), a file cabinet if you're a paper person, a hard drive if you are a digital person. You want somewhere you can find peace and quiet at some point in the day. Most picture a desk, but I have at least one friend who enjoys spreading out on the kitchen table with her laptop and notes. Of course, because it's also where her family eats, she has to keep it clean. She can't leave her research spread out everywhere and she can't allow her family to use the kitchen table as a drop off for their crap. That's what you need in a workspace: a clean surface to start. Grab a box or make a pile (or three) of your current mess, whatever you need to, but clean off the top of your space. After every research day, clean the top back off. Put away notes. File documents. Return calls and emails. Just as long as before you go to sleep, your space is clear. You'd be surprised how much clearer your mind feels too. As we continue to put things in a sensible order, it will be very tempting to leave it for tomorrow on the top of that desk. Don't. If anyone should know how uncertain tomorrow is, it's a genealogist. It's morbid, but my grandmother used to tell me that you didn't keep a clean house for you, you cleaned it so family didn't have to trip through garbage to find your body. Don't make them trip through garbage to find your research.

Add to this workspace your action notebook/file. Whatever you are working on, log it. I use a computer program from Covey for a day planner and notebook that makes it easy to search through and find my notes on any given day. This is where my paper journal goes when I'm doing my week clean-up. It's also capable of holding files, so I "print" to it. Agilix, One Note, Endnote..... there are many notetaking software options that will help keep it all in one place and searchable. Whether you keep it paper or digital, you need one place that you go to for your current research notes. Where have you been for searches, what you found, who you need to talk to next..... if you keep it in one place, you are less likely to lose it! If a relative calls/emails, log it here. You want to make a note to search something later? Write it here. You found something relating to a relative you aren't researching right now and don't want to wander away from your focus area? Write it here!!!!! Don't allow yourself to make loose notes. If you keep your workspace clean, this notebook should be the only thing on top (save for whatever documents you are currently on). You shouldn't have to hunt for a piece of paper to make a "quick note". Remember, "quick notes are quickly forgotten."

And make sure your notes are legible. Make sure it has all the information you'd ever need to know what you were talking about. Imagine you're writing it to a complete stranger who has no idea what you are talking about. It'll keep you from having half the "conversation" in your head and not writing down the important facts you'll need to pick up where you left off.

Next week, we're going to talk about your mountain of paperwork and how to turn it into molehills


  1. Anonymous3/8/12 16:52

    Awesome, as usual, and so, so timely as I am surrounded by my own madness. Thanks Rhi ~ Patti

  2. Great post! I definitely need to get organized - these tips should help.