Digital or bust. Is that the question? 5

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 mementoes. 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?

Photo Credit: mst_b

Photo Credit: mst_b

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?

Photo Credit: Cindy Freed; Used with Permission

Photo Credit: Cindy Freed; Used with Permission

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?

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 mementoes 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 . . . . ? So leave a comment to let me know you're on board. Or if you have suggestions to aid all of us as we improve the way we store our genealogy files please leave that comment too.  I'll update you on my progress and hope to hear about yours!

Cindy Freed

About Cindy Freed

Cindy Freed is a genealogist, researcher and writer. Her blog Genealogy Circle ( documents her personal family research as well as her continuing interest in the Civil War. Along with her monthly IDG column, Tracing Blue and Gray, Cindy is a regular contributor to 4th Ohio, First Call quarterly magazine for the 4th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Descendants Association.

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

  • Velma Davis

    Cindy, I really like your plan. I have several years of papers and documents and have never really found a plan that I could live with are file with. Do you have a genealogical program on your computer are do you use a word processor. Hope you post updates frequently to let us know how the process is going and I hope to be able to do just a little of this myself. Really hard for me because I have 4 generations living in my house right now and do not have any spare room to lay my papers out and a 24 month old G Grandbaby that love pencil and papers. Good Luck and you have inspired me to at least get started. Velma

  • Debbie Mayes

    I agree. I’ve digitalized most of my files, too, but also keep binders. It’s handy to have everything in my computer, but it’s nicer to have the binders when you want to show your family history to your relatives. And, sometimes, I’d rather sit down and look through “a book”. It’s also extra backup.

  • Laurie McNamara Hahn

    Both, Yes! I am digitizing my paper heirlooms in the hopes that a backup copy will save them in case of a fire or flood. I would be devastated to lose them. There is nothing to replace the feeling while holding an original letter from your ancestors back in the old county, relating how much they miss their immigrant or telling the immigrant that the whole family was killed in a war-time bombing, 1945. I scan to protect and preserve them. I originally made photocopies. Now I am changing with the times and digitizing them. My main concern is how do we keep these digital copies up-to-date? How many of us had files on computers that crashed? I’ve paid to have techs try to salvage information and pictures. Little success. In this cyberspace world, what will we be leaving for our descendants in 20 years? 50? 100? PAPER, if preserved will last. I won’t give up my computer tho, and love online databases for research.

  • Dayna Jacobs

    I digitized my research and am only keeping items in binders which are originals. Anything that is derivative—printouts of records, copies from books, etc., went to the recycle bin. It was so liberating! Photos are archived in photos safe sleeves in archival binder boxes. I also copied all my research logs and notes. I can easily find my records in the surname file folder on my computer and am slowly attaching them to individuals in my Legacy a Family Tree program. I scanned documents into PDFs using a document feeder and that part went fast. Photos are TIFFs, and then copies made into JPG en masse using file converter software. My files are backed up on an external Drobo drive, and also online with Carbonite. I have now been easily uploading and attaching my files to my Family Tree at Familysearch so they are available to everyone in my immediate family, and anyone connected to my tree. Everyone now has access to every photo, every document, and every research log and note I have ever had. That is 27 years worth of research I know will be easily accessible to future generations. Nobody has ever asked to look at my research binders before, so I don’t feel guilty getting rid of them, and I am finding my kids are much more interested in looking at the things I have attached to the Family Tree than they ever were with my binders. I think it’s fine to keep everything in binders if that’s what works for folks, and if space is not a problem that is a bonus, but for me it has felt great to find another way to share and preserve my research. I do feel good knowing that if anything ever happens to me my work will go on.