May 1, 2020

What’s in Your Files?

May 1, 2020

If you’ve been doing genealogy for a few years, you probably have a lot of files, most likely both paper and digital. You’ve probably also heard that one of the best things you can do to jump start new research is to review what you’ve already done. I know it’s one of the first things that I learned way back when I was a baby genealogist, and I used to be religious in reviewing and re-organizing my files frequently. That was when my files were few, and many of them were thin. As time went by and I did more research and more resources became available at the press of a computer button, my files grew in number and size, and now I have bursting file cabinets, not to mention a whole stack of digital files. It’s not so easy anymore to review what I already have since there’s so much of it.


In the early days, it was inconceivable to me that I’d ever forget a single, fascinating detail that I’d learned about an ancestor, but, again, I have so many more details to remember now that I suppose it’s not surprising that I can’t even remember what I don’t remember. So, these last few weeks, while I’ve been mostly stuck at home, I’ve been trying to focus on just one family at a time and review everything I already have on that family, particularly all of those paper files that I rarely dig into. The first thing that has amazed me is how much stuff I chose to keep in those old files. Everything from handwritten notes that are completely meaningless to me at this point to tons of 11” x 17” copies of census returns which are, of course, pretty much useless now that all of the U.S. censuses are readily available on numerous websites. It gives me a twinge when I see those old, yellowing census copies since I remember how much work it was to find them and how thrilled I was at seeing each of them, but my first order of business has been to purge them along with the duplicate copies of records that are taking up space for no good reason. Unless I’m competing for hoarder of the year, there really is no reason for me to have six copies of my great grandfather’s obituary from the same newspaper, especially when that newspaper is available online in at least four different locations.


Just getting rid of all of the useless paper has helped my files slim down, and as a bonus, I’ve noticed files that were misfiled. I thought I was pretty efficient at filing, but it turns out maybe not so much. No wonder I couldn’t find that record of my maternal second great grandparents’ marriage in New Zealand that I knew I’d sent for – it was in a file containing marriage records for one of my paternal  lines instead. I’ve also found a surprising number of records that I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve sent for more than once – that death record from England for my third great grandfather, for example, that I somehow didn’t check for before I re-ordered the exact same document. It’s the kind of thing that I’d warn any newbie against doing, but, of course, warning someone else against doing something and doing it yourself are two completely different things. All it would have taken was a check into my old files, but in the heat of the chase, I obviously didn’t bother.


Now that several of my files have been winnowed, it’s time to actually review the documents that are in the files (more about that next week). Some of them have found their way into my database and have been used to base theories and conclusions on, but some of them apparently haven’t been out of their files since I first found them twenty or more years ago. I have no excuses as to why I didn’t follow up on some of these documents, other than that the lure of bright shiny objects is difficult to resist. The good news is that all of these documents are giving me lots of “aha” moments that they didn’t way back when because I know so much more about the families they pertain to now.


Spending time with these old files has almost made it worthwhile to be confined at home (almost); new avenues of research are showing themselves to me, and I have a nice list of resources to check out when eventually all of the libraries and archives reopen.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large