Organising family history research – why I dread it

Google “I am hopeless at organising” and a myriad of websites pop up. The first page has links to various sites which help with depression and a lack of organisation. I might need those websites if I don’t manage to find a way to organise the ever growing pile of documents, certificates, notes, letters and photos I have related to my family history.

The next pages on my Google search cover topics such as health, wealth, happiness and organisation; numerous lists – 10 ways to organise, 20 things to do to be better organised – on how to organise your life, home, career, pets and anything else you might need; and personal stories of trying – and sometimes failing – to get organised in various aspects of life.

You would think that, after a career built on organising others, it would be easy to organise myself. Just one look at the pic above will convince you otherwise. Those tubs are stacked in the wardrobe of my spare bedroom. The bottom tub is full of letters written to my father from both his sisters, his cousins and various other family members and friends. All of the letters are in German. Most of them are handwritten. The next tub is packed with letters, documents, certificates and notebooks from the Russian side of my family. The tub under the top one is full of photos from both sides of the family and a large envelope which contains all the photos I can’t identify. The top tub holds some of the papers relating to the German side of the family.

The shelves live in my study. The two black boxes hold the most relevant papers for the memoir I’m currently writing about my father and our rather fractious relationship. The bottom shelf is stuffed with genealogical books and rolls of family trees written about my father’s side of the family – all of them in German. Which is why I own the large German dictionary you can see in the other shelf. What you can’t see are the books hidden behind the books because I’ve run out of shelf room.

Much of my research is also in digital form. I have hundreds of emails, websites and documents floating between my computer and various USB sticks. It has got to the point where, when I try to find something, I know I have seen it, but I can’t for the life of me remember where it is! I end up trolling through all my emails and documents, sometimes giving up before I find what I’m looking for.

There has to be a better way to organise the research material I have. I know there are plenty of systems out there, it is a matter of deciding which one works best for me. Will it be colour coded folders or taking the time to digitise all of the documents? Or both? I don’t know the answer; I only know it has to be done.

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