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The Easy, Bare-Minimum Guide to Spring-Cleaning Your Research

"Spring-cleaning" your genealogy research is important but can be overwhelming. Follow these tips on getting around the most common "brick walls" when it comes to tidying up your papers, photos and computer files on family history.


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This is the time of year when genealogists are exhorted to spring clean their research, create an effective filing system, and organize a decade or two of research in one afternoon.

But do most of us do it? Probably not. Most people interested in genealogy tend to be collectors by nature. We've also been trained to keep as many records as possible -- you never know when that scrap of paper will turn out to be the missing piece of a puzzle!

And we may run into certain problems when tackling what can be an overwhelming job. Here are descriptions of common "brick walls" when it comes to spring cleaning and how to get around them. Following these steps won't completely overhaul your personal archives, but it should make things more manageable.

1. Pile problems

The problem: You start off with simple keep/discard/donate piles, but these soon multiply into maybe keep/see if Aunt Esther is interested/Hemmings Reunion 1997 and more piles.

Solution: Three piles, no matter what. One should be "Keep", one should be "Throw Out". I make my third the "I Don't Know Yet Pile". I realize this is somewhat controversial organizing advice -- the "miscellaneous" or "catch-all" file is the bugbear of many organizers. But I figure that the quickest way to get through a lot of papers is to force them into only one of three possible categories.

In my case, the "miscellaneous" file will end up being large to mammoth. That's okay. As long as I am definitely throwing some stuff out and definitely keeping other papers and taking a look at each paper in the main pile, I am making progress. I later put the "I Don't Know Yet Pile" through several keep/junk/hold on processes to further whittle it down. I should add that digital files should go through the same process, using folders on your desktop.

2. The Walk Down Memory Lane

The problem: Briefly scanning a paper, photo or digital image to decide whether you need it or not turns into studying each one all over again. In worst-case scenarios, this involves the Internet and turns into several leisurely hours spent reviewing a lot of research with nothing getting organized.

Solution: Set a timer. I like, especially its "bomb timer." Set it for two to five minutes, crank your speakers and you will get the kind of explosion noises that will encourage you to keep moving quickly.

If something is absorbing more of your time than it should, decide whether it actually merits further study or whether you're just getting bored. If you're getting bored, you need to force a decision to keep or junk. (Those explosions coming out of your computer's speakers will help you) If you're not sure, stick it in that terrible "catch-all" file.

3. Pile Problem Part II: The Undeparted

The problem: You diligently sort papers into different "donate" piles because you're going to do something with them or send them somewhere. Until that day comes, they will continue to sit in a corner.

Solution: Before you place anything aside to donate, make sure you've got a person, group or organization that wants them. Contact them first and see if they will take it -- not "sometime" or "maybe" but "Yes, we will accept those items," or "I will be standing on my front porch Tuesday at 2 p.m. waiting for those old family letters." Without a clear exit strategy, you will continue to lose floor space to your piles. If nobody wants them, you must keep or junk!

When Your Enthusiasm Flags . . .

It's okay to have a certain point where you have to call it a spring. As long as you've made some progress, that's great. But you might just need a break from staring at papers or the computer screen.

Here are some other important spring cleaning tasks that can be taken care of while you take a break from looking through information:

- Back up your files (this should be done regularly as well)

- Run a full system scan of your anti-virus/spyware software (something that should also be done regularly)

- Defragment your computer

Any bit of spring cleaning will not only improve your research, but make you feel much more accomplished and productive. Good luck and happy spring!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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