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.

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