Digital or bust. Is that the question?

*This post originally appeared November 2013 on The In-Depth Genealogist blog*

Laptop - photo courtesy of mmagallan at

Laptop – photo courtesy of mmagallan at

To digitize your family research or not to digitize your files. Is that a question? No doubt many of you have already answered this statement in your mind. “Why yes I’ve already digitized my genealogy files.” You’ve scanned your pics and documents, your censuses are all nicely attached to the appropriate ancestor on your online family tree and your desk top is clear. Not one pile of papers to be found. I applaud you! I wish I were more like you! Being able to find my last research log (that is when I use one) would be great! Files arranged so they can be easily accessed helps make research more organized and productive.

Hard copy family historians

Then there’s the seasoned genealogists and family historians with bulging, well labeled binders filled with glossy sheet protectors housing documents, copies, photos and old family letters. Theirs is a family history easily shared with anyone who would take a look. It’s visual, tactile and beautiful. I’m drawn to these binders loaded with information and mementos. It’s obvious they were created with a love for this work.

Finally there’s me! I’m a hodge-podge of both worlds. I’m suspended between leaping to an entirely digital format yet still fiercely hanging on to my binders. I dream of an extensive list of surname folders on my laptop stuffed with .pdf documents, photos, etc. easily accessible and always at my fingertips. I’ve attempted a start to this digital system but the attempt has been somewhat feeble. For the most part I’m still stuck in my haphazard system of binders, large and small filled with copies I’ve made at courthouses and libraries I’ve visited through the years.

What do I do?

I know I need to make a change. Living in this intermediate world is not going well. In many cases I have some documents in a binder and others digitized for the very same surname or individual. I’m gathering information from several places before I even begin a research plan. This hybrid way of storing my research does not lead to easily picking up where I left off last let alone mentioning the time I’ve wasted searching for records.

The solution that I think will work best for me is to embrace both worlds. Yep that’s right. I’m not choosing one over another I’m fully committing myself to both. Both have advantages, neither in my mind are a clear choice over the other and using both will give me the most comprehensive and complete family history I can gather together.

So how am I going to do this?

Genealogy Research

Genealogy Research = Piles of papers

Currently I’m working on 14 surnames. (I hope to increase that number by knocking down a couple brick walls.) So I already have 14 binders labeled with those surnames. I have taken the stacks of copies, documents, etc. and distributed them into piles according to the surname they belong too. Yes this has resulted in quite a mess but I’m lucky enough to have a spare bed to stack everything on.

My next step will be to create a file on my laptop for each surname and scan the papers and photos to the appropriate file before I slide it in a nice glossy sheet protector. I’ll discard hard copy duplicates and other non pertinent information I’ve accumulated. Each surname file on my laptop will have subfiles for husband, wife and children. This process will also include printing out any information I have stored digitally that is not already included in my binders. During this project decisions will need to be made. Do I print out five censuses for my binder? For a complete and accurate family history, yes, but perhaps your digital files are your one true source of information. The choice in how you handle this is up to you.

Overwhelming project?

Laptop – Photo courtesy of stock.xchng

Laptop – Photo courtesy of stock.xchng

You bet! Just take a peek at my spare bed but we succeed at nothing if we don’t try. My solution is to work on only one binder a month. I’m working on mine a couple evenings a week and on Sundays. My surname binders are already matched up to the month they’ll be scanned with the busier months like November and December getting the smaller and less work intensive binders. My larger binders like the Williams’ and Marshall’s will be done in January and February which are less active months for us. Scanning doesn’t always require a lot of concentration so I’ll scan during football games and American Pickers.

Am I going to leave these binders and loose papers on my bed for the next year while waiting to be scanned? No I’ve gathered boxes to store each individual binder and papers in, labeling the box with surname and month it will be worked on. They will get stacked in the spare bedroom closet. Taking up much-needed space will be an impetus to keep me working on this project.

Is this a fool-proof method of storing my genealogy files?

No of course not. I’ll run into many questions like how many subfiles do I need? Will a male/female be a child in one file and husband/wife in another? My answer is yes and then I’ll learn to link a document to more than one file so I’m not using unnecessary storage space. Certainly I’ll make mistakes and I’ll correct them as I go but my ultimate goal is to spend my time doing research and not sorting and searching for records like I’m doing now.

By the end of my 14 month project (sooner if I keep working at it) I will have neatly labeled binders full of documents, copies, photos and mementos to pull out and share with anyone interested in my family history or for myself to look at and enjoy. I’ll also have that same family history stored on my computer in digital files, backed up and enabling me to find documents quickly and easily. My digital genealogy files will also be accessible when I’m “on the road” researching without lugging large cumbersome binders.

Filing and organizational systems are good as long as they accomplish your goals and you use them.

So if you feel like I do and know you’ve got to make a change in the way you store your accumulated research let’s do this – together! We don’t accomplish a thing without starting. Remember the journey of a thousand miles . . . . ? Please leave a comment and let me know if you have suggestions that will help improve the way we store our genealogy files. I’d love to hear your tips!

I’ll update you on my progress and hope to hear about yours!

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2 thoughts on “Digital or bust. Is that the question?

  1. I like combining both methods. I like to be able hold a document but need to organize, have only one copy,and where to keep that one copy. Found facebook comments very interesting yesterday. good luck, wish I was better with computer skills.

    • Betsy ~ Oh you’ve got good computer skills!! You’re creating civic group yearbooks that look great!
      I’m with you I want to use both methods and have them complete and up to date. No more files stored in three places! I want digital records so we can refer back to them easily on our tablets, especially in a PA courthouse and physically too so that I can look through. There’s nothing better than leafing through a binder with all that accumulated info.
      I figure I’ll adjust and change my organization methods as I go but will eventually work out a process that works for me!
      Thank you so much for reading each post and commenting. I really do appreciate it!

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