Divide and Conquer
Home and Garden Television organizing shows are forever instructing their participants to sort their "stuff" into three bins: keep, donate, trash. For genealogists who throw nothing away, for who knows when it may again become useful, I propose the following: people, places, professions. Get three large boxes - boxes that come from cases of copy paper work well because they're not too deep and they don't get too heavy. Label them with the previously mentioned three labels and you're ready to sort.
For this box put all scraps of paper and documents pertaining to someone (i.e.: vital records, probate, church records, burials, newspaper clippings, etc.).
For this box put all the papers about the places that your ancestors lived: county and town histories, general historical documentation about areas, maps, etc.
For this box put everything that documents types of professions engaged in during the time period that your ancestor was alive: farrier (blacksmith), milk man, shoe manufacturer, mill worker, etc.
There! You've already separated your work load into three smaller piles.
Get appropriate supplies
In our zeal to research, genealogists often find the strangest things to write on. It seems as though no two pieces of paper are the same size, shape, or color. Of course, trying to put these papers in any type of order can be a nightmare. Experts who suggest that you must rewrite all your notes must not have many notes to file.
Start by sorting the People Box by individual. Don't worry about what you've written on at this point. You may need to make a separate pile for "those who I'm not sure are really related to me." That's ok.
Next, make a manila folder for all of the individuals for which you have piles. Even if it's just one sheet of paper - you never know when more information will be uncovered, even if the life of that person was short. The format I like best is: Surname, First Name, Middle (or Middle Initial), year of birth, year of death, date of marriage, spouse(s) name(s); substitute parent's names for spouse if it was a child. It should look something like this:
Kirby, John Augustin b. 1901; d. 1971;
m. Anderson, Greta M. 1924
or if you're talking about a child that died:
Kirby, Elizabeth G. b. 1915; d. 1915
par: Kirby, Elizabeth & Martin
Ok, now everything's in a folder - time to place everything in a file box. The order of the box will depend on what type of project you are working on. Community studies or research where the family structure is not readily apparent will work better with an alphabetical filing system using surname, then first name, then middle initial, then year of birth to differentiate between same named individuals. If you are working on a family whose structure is known to you, a generational filing works best because you can see all the collateral relatives in one section. If you are using the latter, make hanging files for Generation One, Two, etc.
For oversized documents, put a note on the inside cover of the folder and note where you have filed the document. Bankers boxes work well for most rolled maps, manifests, etc.
The Places Box should be sorted by place (church, town, state, region, country). Suggestion: Start with the largest geographic denomination (i.e.: country) and work down to the smallest: (i.e.: Congregational Church). An example:
United States, New England, Massachusetts, Essex County, East Parish Bradford, Congregational Church.
You may want to think about place name changes when filing your Places items. For example: East Parish Bradford was originally part of Rowley and later became Groveland. I find it easier to put a date range on the folder:
East Parish Bradford (1675-1849)
Rowley (1636 - 1675)
When writing up history, it is best to keep the places in separate folders by name and date so that you are not attributing something to one place name that actually referred to another.
Professions are best kept in alphabetical order in manila folders like the other two subcategories.
If you have come this far, you are well on your way to being able to start writing your family history. What's next? Standardizing the size of all of your notes, assembling a proof book for your research, documenting your research using the computer, utilizing on-line resources to come up with research plans, visiting a repository to do the research, and figuring out what to do with everything when you get home.
See you next time!