Spring Clean Your Genealogy: Six Steps to Getting Started

by Lisa Alzo | Jun 21, 2011

Lisa Alzo

When springtime finally arrives many of us take to sprucing up our homes and yards. But it's also a good time to freshen up your family history. The article will offer a few tips on how to keep your genealogical research in check this spring by doing a "family tree spring clean."

1. Cut the Clutter. If you're like me, you've got a stack of papers near your computer, perhaps another pile on the kitchen or dining room table, and maybe even yet another one in a backpack or briefcase you've accumulated during research trips. You'll want to attack each of these piles in turn using what I call the "SOFT" method. Invest in some of those plastic paper trays, or wire bins or baskets (available at any office supply store). If you don't want to purchase these items, empty file folder boxes can also work. You should aim to have four of these temporary "holders" and label them as follows: Sort, Organize, File, and Toss. Ideally, you should spend some time organizing the piles of papers into the appropriate box/tray, but at the very least, you can use the "Sort" box or tray to gather and hold the papers. When you have time start dividing the "Sort" pile so that your documents go into one of the other three holders.

Start with the "Toss" box--these are for the papers you will either toss or shred if the document contains any personal or sensitive information (for example, a duplicate photocopy of a marriage certificate would be something you should shred, but a printout of a Google Map or other public website page could be tossed). Use "Organize" for those documents you must save, and sort them again into categories in file folders. You can use a magic marker to write on the folder tabs, but I love my handy label maker (you can get them at any office supply or discount store) because I can print labels on the fly in large print. (For example, my labels look like this: "ALZO FAMILY: IMMIGRATION RECORDS; ALZO FAMILY: MARRIAGE RECORDS, etc.) If you don't have time to make the file folders, you can simply use sticky notes to separate the piles in the bin. But, I like making the folders because I can reuse them (see #6 below). Whatever you do, try to give each folder a specific name and avoid the dreaded "Miscellaneous" or "Assorted" labels. When you're ready to file, you can simply file your folders if you store them in a filing cabinet, or if you use three-ring binders (I like this method because it is portable) then you can transfer the documents into snap in sheet protectors. The key is to find a system that works for you and stick with it.

Important Tip: Do not work with your originals. Keep these stored in a selection of reinforced boxes (also useful for photographs, see #2 below) made from acid- and lignin-free board from a company such as Hollinger Metal Edge. Once you have them in the proper storage medium, you may want to also consider putting the originals in a portable tabletop or floor safe for added protection.

2. Preserve Those Photographs. Who doesn't have a box or possibly several boxes of old photographs tucked away in their house? Start by putting them into the proper storage medium. Use acid- and lignin-free storage materials or those made from polypropylene (a type of plastic) for small items. Check with Hollinger for available products). Whenever possible, keep photographs and other objects out of direct sunlight, away from heat and water pipes. Ideally, you should avoid attics, basements, garages, due to temperature and humidity changes and the risk of exposure to pests. You can apply the SOFT method from #1 to your photographs too. Whenever possible, try to at least label your pictures--if you don't have names or dates, write a brief description. Get tips on doing this properly from the Photo Detective. A good way to preserve your precious family photos is to scan them. Scanners are becoming more portable and more affordable, as evidenced by the Flip-Pal mobile scanner--popular among genealogists. Obviously, if you have an overwhelming number of images you will not be able to complete your scanning all at once. Set some time aside weekly, or monthly, to do a bit at a time. Consider joining in on Scanfest, hosted typically on the third Sunday of every month over at the AnceStories Blog. Also, don't forget about preserving family heirlooms such as bibles, diaries, clothing, jewelry, etc. The exact processes and storage supplies can vary depending on the item, so you'll need to consult an expert, check the guides listed in the "Additional Resources" below. You should also consider transferring 35mm slides, movies, and videotapes to digital format. Check your local telephone directory, or search Google for companies who do this work, or search e-How for "do-it-yourself" advice.

3. Reduce, Recycle, and Reuse. Do you have hundreds of reference books, or 10 years worth of genealogy magazines collecting dust on your bookshelves? Consider moving to digital versions (most magazines produce an online or CD version) and then recycling or donating the paper versions. The local library in my town has a "Friends of the Library" sale each fall and spring. This is a perfect place to donate books I no longer use or can view online. Check with your local community websites or do a Google search to find similar events where you live. In addition, I recently donated dozens of back issues of genealogy magazines to a local genealogical society. I then purchased CD-ROM copies of my favorite magazines--this has saved me a ton of space. You may also want to consider donating research findings you don't need. For example, many years ago I was cleaning out my parents' house and found more than 250 memorial cards stuffed in coat pockets, books, drawers, etc. I saved those I recognized as family names. The names I did not recognize were likely friends and neighbors of my family, and perhaps another researcher is searching for information on those individuals. So I donated them to the local historical society in my parents' hometown.

4. Check Your Computer. Genealogists in the 21st century not only have to conquer the "paper monster" but the electronic "beast" as well. Take some time to organize your electronic "desktop" just as you would your physical desktop. Make sure you have folders and filenames that are easily searchable. Uninstall programs that you no longer use regularly, and consider giving your computer a "tune-up" (find tips at the Technofile website). Sort through your Internet Bookmarks and organize the ones you frequently use into folders by topic so that you can use them later. Consider social bookmarking services such as Delicious or Diigo, or a program such as Evernote. Backup your data often or at least once a month (See Geneabloggers where the first day of the month is "Data Backup Day"). Invest in an external hard drive (I have one that holds 1 Terabyte - plenty of space for my files), and/or opt for an online storage site like Mozy or Carbonite. Consider keeping your files in "The Cloud" with Dropbox and/or GoogleDocs.

5. Prune Your Family Tree. Go through your research and weed out what you can. Go through your binders and your family tree file and make notes of missing information or brick wall problems. Spring is also the perfect time to "renew" your genealogy resolutions that you might have let slip since the New Year. In addition to backing up your family tree (see #4 above), consider uploading it to an online family tree site. If you haven't upgraded your genealogical program in awhile, see if there's a new version with features that may help you stay organized all year long. Consult GenSoftReviews for user-based comments on popular programs and online sites.

6. Organize as You Go. Once you have a working filing system in place, then get in the habit of attending to papers and other items as they are acquired. Load a sturdy plastic accordion file with the genealogy paperwork that you can carry from room to room or even take with you on the go. Include a printout of your "To-Do" list or research plan, and important phone numbers. This should help to clear your desks or tables of paper clutter. Also, consider creating a "research kit" to keep by the door in preparation for those trips to the library or courthouse. Pack a tote or backpack with paper, envelopes, stamps, pens, pencils, change for parking meters and copy machines (dollar bills and quarters), a USB drive, your research planner (including contact names and phone numbers), a disposable camera, trail mix, or other dry snacks, hand sanitizer or wipes, tissues, sweater or light jacket, and any other personal items you want to take with you.


Realize that a good genealogical spring-cleaning will not be accomplished in just a few hours, or even a day. You may have to spend several sessions to get things in order. If you can't block out several hours, try 15-minutes per day, concentrating on one task or problem area at a time--chipping away at it until you finish. One of my favorite T-shirts has the saying: "I am NOT a Packrat! I'm a Genealogist!" If you want to prove it, the best way to do so can be summarized in one sentence: "Cut out the "dead branches" so that your family tree might blossom."

Additional Resources:

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