Keeping track of paper files

One of the perennial problems of genealogical research is keeping track of paper files. As time goes by you accumulate mounds of paper, piles of paper — notes, letters, family group sheets sent to by related and unrelated people, certificates, photocopies of wills, and much much more.

How do you keep track of it?

There are all kinds of systems that are recommended, but most of them are too complicated, and too difficult to catch up with if you fall behind.

The easiest filing system I have ever seen is one recommended with the early versions of the Personal Ancestral File program (PAF). It even came with a program to support it, the Research Data Filer.

The simplest solution is this: number each document with a serial number, and file them in numerical order in a lever arch file (or, if you’re American, a 3-ring binder). Use a computer program to keep track of the contents of the paper file.

The Research Data Filer had (has — I still use it!) two files – Documents (.DOC) and Data (.DAT). The document file contains a description of each document. The data file indexes the people in the documents, and allows you to enter the kind of information contained in the documents – the fields are: Document Number, Page, Name, Sex, Id, Event, Date, Place, Rela(ations), Relations Id numbers (up to 3) and Comments. For Id I use the RINs allocated by my genealogy program, since they are unique to each person.

Thus if you are looking for a person, you can search on name or Id, and it comes up with a list of the documents that contain information on that person, which you can then find easily, because you’ve filed them in numerical order.

You don’t have to use the Research Data Filer (RDF) to index your paper files. You could use a spreadsheet or general database program, or a specialised program like Clooz. But I still find the RDF program best because it was designed for the job, and adheres to the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid. I only wish that someone would update it with a Windows version, because printing output from DOS programs with a Windows printer is a pain in the neck.

If course you can’t store all research documents in a lever arch file — for example, if it is a book. The book must stay on the bookshelf. So what you put in your lever arch file is a sheet of paper with full bibliographical information about the book, and, if it is a library book, which library you found it in, and when you consulted it. You can also add photocopies of relevant pages, under the same document number.

The advantage of this system is that it is simple and easy to maintain, and you can start anywhere, with any pile, or any document. Just punch the holes, file it, and give it a number, starting with 1, or 00001 if you prefer. Some genealogy programs, like Legacy, let you include this document number in your source notes on a person.

The Research Data Filer program allows you to sort on any field. You can also “focus” on any kind of information – say a surname, and then a first name, and then a place. This is like the “filter” function in most database programs, but it is not just in the form of a report, but a view of a particular set of records that can then be edited or printed.

Cottam family of Lancaster

Yesterday I found another generation of my Cottam family in the Lancaster area, and so was able to link to a lot of descendants.

My great great great grandfather, Richard Cottam, was born at Heaton-with-Oxcliffe, near Lancaster, but I had not been able to find his baptism, and thus his parents.

At the LDS Family History Centre in Johannesburg I ordered the film of church records for St Helen, Overton, and found Richard Cottam was baptised there in 1811, along with 10 siblings, including his brother Adam Cottam, whose whole family I had recorded in censuses etc, without knowing how he was connected.

They were the children of John and Mary Cottam, John being recorded as “Farmer of Oxcliffe Hall”. The only other Cottams found there in abundance were the children of Henry and Alice Cottam. Henry was a “Farmer of Heaton”. The next step will be to find if John and Henry were brothers and who their parents were.

Brooks of the Isle of Axholme

Not long ago I wrote about the Axholme Ancestry web site, which seems to have some very useful information for people whose ancestors came from that part of the world. The Isle of Axholme is in north-west Lincolnshire, bordering Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.

One of my ancestors from there, John Vause (1747-1823), married an Elizabeth Brooks in Epworth on 4 January 1780. They had four children: Richard, John, Samuel and Sarah. Elizabeth died when Sarah was a couple of months old, and Sarah herself died a few months later.

Since I first visited the site a month ago someone else has added some more information, including the probable parents of Elizabeth Brooks, Samuel and Sarah Brooks. They had a daughter Elizabeth baptised on 6 September 1745, which makes her about the right age, and since the third son and first daughter were named Samuel and Sarah respectively, it seems that Samuel and Sarah (senior) were probably her parents. So that takes another family line another generation back.

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