Monday, November 16, 2009

Inherited Research

I recently received the following question from realbeale about organizing inherited research and genealogy files.

My mother was the family historian and completed 2 or 3 family genealogy books when she passed. I inherited 5 bins of primary research. Any advice on what I should keep and how to organize it?
Help!


Thanks for the great question! While no one system of organization works for everybody, hopefully, I can offer some tips that might assist you as you sort through those bins of research.

For starters, know that this is going to be a huge project. Don't expect to get it done in one weekend. If you're a super genea-ninja, a weekend might be enough. However, it took your mother years to collect all of that research. It will likely take you several weeks or even months to go through and organize it all, unless your mother was super-organized. If that is the case, all you need to do is inventory what is there, and you can stop reading now. You also might want to buy a lottery ticket because you've got to be one of the luckiest people alive.

Otherwise, my next suggestion is to try and see the big picture of what is in those bins. Spend a little bit of time just thumbing through each of the bins and getting a general feel for what is in them. This will help you as you start to dig into the details of how to organize it all.

When my grandmother's boxes were passed to me, she had not only research in there, but photos, scrapbooks, heirlooms, and other various things. If that is the case for you, the next step would be to organize by those groupings. I put all of the photos and scrapbooks in one pile, papers in another, and then a miscellaneous pile to hold everything else. Since this is a big project, you might want to pick up some bankers' boxes from your local Walmart. Put your initial piles into those boxes and label them. Then, as you get some spare time (as we all have loads of that, right?), you can select a box and start working on it bit by bit.

For photos, you'll want to sort those in a logical way, and if they haven't been already, you'll want to digitize them and preserve the originals. You can scan them in and clean them up yourself (see my previous post Digitizing Your Own Photos). Or you can use a service to do it for you (see my previous post Affordable Digitizing...).

Preserving heirlooms is a whole other topic in and of itself, which I won't get into here. However, you can find some good information on this online.

Now, all that should be left is the research. (I say that like it's a piece of cake, don't I?) I would organize my research into two different sections, as well. The first would be what some researchers would call "primary records." What constitutes a primary record is so subjective that I don't even like to use the terminology. Basically, you'll pull all of the vital records copies, newspaper clippings, census abstracts, journals and letters, etc., into one group. Nothing from this group will ever be thrown away. This is the stuff you'd want to pass on to someone else eventually. These are your "original" information documents.

Your second section of papers would include research notes, pedigree charts or family group records, and maybe even photocopies of some of the papers in the first section of research. This group of research you'll want to go through piece by piece at some point. If there are duplicates of pedigree charts, photocopies of original vital records that you already have, or notes from a family history seminar your mother attended that you don't need, those would be the things you'd add to a trash pile. However, don't throw anything away until you're absolutely sure there is not even a remote possibility you will ever need it again for research in the future. In other words, if it has a name you don't recognize that might be an ancestor or possible dates for a family member's death, don't toss it. What's left will require you to go through and decide what to do with the information. Much of it you might already have in your genealogy files. Some might be new information you can type into your genealogy program and then toss the paper copy. Other things might be somewhat cryptic research notes from your mother's visit to a cemetery in Massachusetts, and for now, you'll just file that away in a logical system of some sort. You may need it in the future.

Hopefully, these ideas can help get you started on sorting through all that you inherited. I think you'll discover not only some new things about your ancestors as you dig through those bins, but perhaps about your mother, as well. Good luck, and happy ancestor hunting!

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