Which stack is it in? Which box? Which file? Where oh where are those papers when I need them? Paper organization had always been my nemesis, and family history papers have been the worst. I have tons of papers, pictures, and memorabilia for my own life history, my husband’s life history, and those of our seven children – and now grandchildren!

In addition, Doug and I are gathering everything we can find on each of his four grandparents’ lines and my four.  As if that weren’t enough, my parents bequeathed me two large boxes of family history papers. How could I keep them straight? How could I organize things so I could put my hand on the paper I needed when I needed it and not be forever looking for something?

The LDS commercial theme: “Isn’t It About TIME?” applies here. “Time” is the best reason I could find to get organized. It takes a little time at first, but saves megabytes of time in the long run – and who has any to waste in this busy world?  If I could have used all the time I’ve wasted looking for papers in the past few years to actually move ahead with my family history work, I’d have an awfully lot more done!

Organizing Is a Process, Not an Event

Over the years I’ve found some answers that are making my paper life easier and helping me use more and more of my time productively. I’ve also learned some principles that set my mind at ease. The first is that I will always be in the process of organizing. It is not something that is ever finished, so it’s okay that I’m not through!

The Gathering

The second principle is the importance of getting started – and that “gathering” is the place to start. You can’t organize what you don’t have gathered together in one place.  In his article “Your Family History: Getting Started,” Elder Boyd K. Packer wrote:

It is a matter of getting started. You may come to know the principle that Nephi knew when he said, “And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Ne. 4:6).

If you don’t know where to start, start with yourself. If you don’t know what records to get, and how to get them, start with what you have.

There are two very simple instructions for those who are waiting for a place to begin. Here’s what you might do:

Get a cardboard box. Any kind of a box will do. Put it someplace where it is in the way, perhaps on the couch or on the counter in the kitchen – anywhere where it cannot go unnoticed.

Then, over a period of a few weeks, collect and put into the box every record of your life, such as your birth certificate, your certificate of blessing, your certificate of baptism, your certificate of ordination, and your certificate of graduation. Collect diplomas, all of the photographs, honors, or awards, a diary if you have kept one, everything that you can find pertaining to your life; anything that is written, or registered, or recorded that testifies that you are alive and what you have done.

Don’t try to do this in a day. Take some time on it. Most of us have these things scattered around here and there. Some of them are in a box in the garage under that stack of newspapers; others are stored away in drawers, or in the attic, or one place or another. Perhaps some have been tucked in the leaves of the Bible or elsewhere.

Gather all these papers together and put them in the box. Keep it there until you have collected everything you think you have. Then make some space on a table, or even on the floor, and sort out all that you have collected. Divide your life into three periods. The Church does it that way. All of our programming in the Church is divided into three general categories – childhood, youth, and adult.

Start with the childhood section and begin with your birth certificate. Put together every record in chronological order: the pictures, the record of your baptism, and so on, up to the time you were 12 years of age.

Next assemble all that which pertains to your youth, from 12 to 18, or up until the time you were married. Put all of that together in chronological order. Line up the records – the certificates, the photographs, and so on – and put them in another box or envelope. Do the same with the records on the rest of your life.

Once you have done this, you have what is necessary to complete your life story. Simply take your birth certificate and begin writing: “I was born September 10, 1924, the son of Ira W. Packer and Emma Jensen Packer, at Brigham City, Utah. I was the tenth child and the fifth son in the family.”

It really won’t take you long to write, or dictate into a tape recorder, the account of your life, and it will have an accuracy because you have collected those records.

What then? After you’ve made the outline of your life history to date, what do you do with all of the materials you have collected?

That, of course, brings you to your book of remembrance. Simply paste them lightly on the pages so that they can be taken out if necessary from time to time, and you have your book of remembrance (Ensign, August 2003, p.12).

I highly recommend this entire Ensign article.

The Most Unlikely Places

For all those perfectionists out there ? you don’t need to wait until you are sure you have absolutely everything gathered to start the next step. Finding what you have that pertains to family history and gathering it together in one place is another process that goes on and on.

Every time I clean out a drawer, box, closet, or file, I find something that doesn’t belong there ? that needs to be “gathered together” with like papers or objects. I suppose that is one of the first rules of organization – to get similar things together.

My sister and I laughed and laughed when we found, at the bottom of one of Mom and Dad’s genealogy boxes, a tool to loosen the lug bolts when you have a flat tire. We’ll never know what it was doing there – but we certainly didn’t need it for our family history work! Similarly, we often have family history things where they don’t belong. If I have old pictures tucked in the bottom of a jewelry box, or important certificates in the bottom of the sock drawer, those things need to be “gathered” to a central location – a box, a file, a folder in a scrapbook.

I now save myself a lot of time by having specific places to put the family history stuff I find instead of just throwing it all into one big box and having to deal with it later. Here are the best tips I’ve been able to apply:

  • Have a hanging file and picture history book for each child so when I find something of theirs I can plop it right into their slot or book.

  • Assign a different color to each ancestor line, purchase those colors of file folders along with colored stick-on dots and colored markers so I can color code everything that belongs in each line. I have hanging files for each of my four lines, and different color folders for each.

For instance, my grandma Laurena’s folders are purple. In that section (the Nielsen line) I have a purple folder for life stories, a purple folder for pictures, a purple folder for pedigree charts, a purple folder for family group sheets and research for any family on this line I may be researching, a purple folder for certificates and immigration papers, etc. So now, when I find a paper, I can look on the pedigree chart, and if it fits into this line, I have a specific place to put it. I keep any papers I remove from the file in a purple folder so I know where they go when I return them.

Now, wonder of wonders, when I’m looking for something I need from that line, I very well might know exactly where to find it. (The total miracle of that can only be appreciated by those who have, like me, had to search through “matter unorganized” for lengthy periods of time!)

The Value of Timelines

Timelines are a surprisingly helpful organization tool. For instance, if I have a timeline to refer to, sorting pictures is relatively easy. My personal timeline lists major life events and the years they occurred: birth, baptism, moves, marriage, my children’s births, and so on. For the years my children were in school I listed what grade and age each child was each year. Why? Because I was forever having to figure that out. I also have a picture timeline for those years – I took their school pictures and pasted them in chronological sequence for our family book. Now I can refer to the timeline and the “age progression” pictures when I’m trying to figure out how old someone was in a certain picture.

I have page protector “envelopes” dated for each year of each child’s life in their separate picture history books, so when I have the year pinpointed, I know just where to put the picture. These gathered pictures are the basis for the scrapbooking I am doing a little at a time.

Timelines can also be helpful in family history research. Creating a timeline for an ancestor (birth, baptism, marriage, birth of children, death) quickly shows you which dates you have and which you are missing and need to research.

The Checklist Approach to Organization

Lloya Hall, a remarkable ward family history consultant who lives in Orem, headed up a ward committee that came up with “how-to checklists” for each major aspect of family history. Her checklists for “getting organized” have been the most help of anything I’ve found. The material she shared with me is not copyrighted, and she has given me permission to spread it around.

Lloya and her amazing committee prepared a checklist of the various things you need to organize, a checklist of supplies you need to purchase or gather for most efficient organizing, a checklist for putting together a family history binder, a checklist for putting together your file folders, a checklist for putting together your file box, and so on. (And that is only the section on organization! She has similar checklists for several other important aspects of family history.) Anyone interested in receiving this material by e-mail in PDF format can e-mail a request to me at: darla2@xmission.com