There are thirteen steps for setting up the color-coded filing system. The system is time-tested and proven to be the organization resource that will grow with you as you expand your research.
Color-coded Genealogy Research Filing System
- Part 1: Getting Started
- Part 2: Setting Up the System (Steps 1-4)
- Part 3: Setting Up the System (Steps 5-9)
- Part 4: Setting Up the System (Steps 10-13)
- Part 5: Using the Filing System for Patronymics
- View overview video
This system sets up file folders for the families on your pedigree lines and also shows you how to file information about cousins and other relatives. Pedigree charts and corresponding family group folders are divided into four colors, based on the lines of your four grandparents. Dividing your pedigree by color helps make it clear which line a family belongs to. For each family on your pedigree, a family file folder holds documents and a copy of that family’s group record. Don’t think you have to do all the steps outlined in one day. Pace yourself. Check each step off as you do it. This system will keep your genealogy records organized for your own benefit and to hand on to your posterity.
Step 10. Start filling your family folders.
Include the following things in a family folder:
- The family group record of the family. If there was more than one marriage, make a separate folder with a family group record for each marriage. Do the non-direct line marriages in center-tab folders.
- Documents you have already gathered that belong with this family
Add the following items to a family folder, as you need them:
- To-do list of questions about this family that you want to find answers for.
- Research log for keeping a record of sources you look at about this family.
- Timeline for a chronology of this family’s life events.
- Maps pertaining to where this family lived.
- Research notes.
- New documents you find.
Include all documents from the time of a couple’s marriage. Documents that pertain to events prior to their marriage can be filed in the folders of their parents, such as birth certificates and baptism certificates.
These are all valuable tools, and as you add these tools to each of the manila folders, you’ll find that you’ll be able to systematically move forward—identify this family, document this family, and have the feeling that you are really creating a good, strong, and accurate genealogy. I encourage you to understand what to do with the to-do list, how to use a research log, how to keep track of where you’ve been researching, and how to use a timeline to be sure that you’re not combining generations when they should be, for example, a junior and a senior.
Tip: Is there a way that I can include folders about the individual children of a family unit? Using center-tab manila folders, create a file for each child, as the parent of a family. Include his or her spouse and their children. File these center-tab manila folders behind the direct line parent’s folder.
- Use center-tabbed manila folders for the children. This includes collateral line (aunts and uncles) families.
- File the children’s folders right behind their parents’, in birth date order of the related children (not the birth date of the spouse).
- Put a colored star on the upper right corner of your direct ancestor. The color of the star should be the same as the parent’s line.
- Put a colored dot in the upper right hand corner of the family group records of non-direct line children so that you can quickly see they are non-direct line. The color of the dot should be the same as the color of the parent’s line.
When I am filing papers about a direct descendant (folders with the star), I place all the information about a person in the years prior to marriage (birth certificate, baptismal record, and so on) in the “child” folder behind the parent. All information associated with the direct descendent following their marriage, I place in their family folder (marriage certificate, death certificate).
When I am filing papers associated with siblings of my direct ancestor (aunts and uncles) and their families, I will place any information I find (birth certificate, marriage certificate, or death certificate) in the child’s folder.
When I create children’s folders, I will include the child’s spouse on the label. This is a personal preference of mine, so do what works best for your own filing.
The following is an example of how the children folders are organized for my great-great-grandparents:
Step 11. Set up other useful files.
The files that we are going to talk about in this step are as important as any of the previous files we have previously set up. It would be nice if we could always get our genealogy to fit into surname files that we have set up, but that is not a reality. The Holding, Locality, and Help files are used when you find information that is useful for researching more than one family group such as a group of cemetery records for that surname in the same locality where your ancestor lived.
1. Holding Files
Set up surname Holding Files to store items with information about that surname that includes more than one family of that surname.
Place the Holding File right behind the surname hanging file with the pedigree charts and before the family files. Do this for any surname where you see the need.
When you have a large number of documents for a surname, it helps to create two Holding Files for that surname. Set up one folder as a temporary storage file, and the other to permanently store documents that have a great deal of family information in them. An example might be the parish registers of a church where your ancestors of that surname lived for two hundred years. Be sure to go back and use the documents stored in the Holding Files!
Tip: How do I store photographs in folders? Photographs should be stored in archival quality holders in three-ring binders for long term preservation.
Tip: How do you use the holding files? The most helpful part of this system for me when I first started was the holding files, because I took my piles of information and broke it down into big groups of surnames, and then they became actually very manageable. I could then go refine and organize as I had time. There are two kinds of holding files that I find useful. For example, I have a temporary holding place for the Ewell family. There are times when I come home from research and for one reason or another I don’t have time to sort my research. I just put them in a temporary holding file right behind the Ewell surname. When I have the time, I will sort the documents into the appropriate family and individual folders. When I have documents that pertain to several Ewell families (such as they were all going to the same church, buried in the same cemetery, or went to the same school), I will put this document into a permanent Ewell holding file that will go right behind the Ewell pedigree chart file.
2. Locality Files
Set up Locality Files for locations you are researching. Documents are often found which contain information about more than one family from the same place. Records such as a census index of your family surnames, a map, a list of marriages from a town or county, an index to the wills in an area, or a local history can be stored in a file named for that locality. Information from these documents should be added to your computer database—such as PAF, RootsMagic, or Legacy—with a source reference and notes taken from the documents filed in your Locality File. Add Local¬ity Files as you need them. Set up Locality Files for countries, states or provinces, counties, cities, parishes, or towns, as you find the need.
- Use standard green hanging files for Locality Files.
- Put these hanging files in the second file box you purchased.
The following are several scenarios of the organization structure of a locality box for different countries showing the sequence in which the files and folders will appear:
- Guide to the state, province, or department archives.
- A will index for the whole state, province, or department for the surnames you are interested in.
- Census index for the state, province, or department for the surnames you are interested in.
- History of the state, province, or department.
- County boundary changes for the whole state, province, or department.
In a county file folder, put the following kinds of items:
- Printouts from the Family History Library Catalog.
- Index to the county court records for surnames you are interested in.
- Index to county land records: grantor and grantee indexes for surnames you are interested in.
- Pages from a book of marriages in the county for the surnames you are interested in.
- Tax lists for certain years in the county.
In a city or town file folder, put the following kinds of items:
- Cemetery records.
- School census.
- City map.
- Map of ward or parish boundaries within the city.
- Church records from churches in the city or town.
Tip: Can you provide an example for setting up locality files? Anyone who does family history gets into places fairly heavily, and so you end up getting records about many people, not just your direct line. You need to create files that deal with county records, census records, all kinds of different things about the place. When I started using locality files, I was researching ancestors from the state of Kansas. I set up a totally separate container with the label “Kansas.” The first folder in the container was set up for maps (road maps, period maps). The second folder was labeled “Kansas” and included genealogical and historical publications from Kansas. Fol¬lowing the Kansas folder, I set up a series of folders with the names of the counties I was researching. These folders are alphabetically organized. I then have the ability to add folders as I need them behind each county. For example, when I was researching the city of Otis, Kansas, (in Rush County) I secured cemetery records from a Methodist and a Lutheran cemetery. Behind the Rush County file, I added a file for each cemetery and dropped the records associated with each cemetery into each folder.
Tip: When do I create a holding file rather than a locality file? Someday you’re going to run across a list of cemetery records, and you’re going to look at it and say “There were six of my families with six different surnames in this cemetery. Which one of my family folders am I going to put this cemetery record in?” And then you will ask, “Do I need a holding file or a locality file?” A locality file works if that cemetery is in a specific county (such as Rush County) and all six of those families were in Rush County. That’s a locality file. A holding file is created if you have lots of information about one surname (such as Wagner family) but you have the Wagner family getting land in ten different places. You can’t simply put that one list of deeds in one Wagner family because it belongs with lots of Wagner families, and so you put it in a holding file.
3. Help Files
Set up Help Files, as needed, for tools such as language aids, religious information, or handwriting guides. Group Help Files together in the front of the Locality box.
Step 12. Expand to other boxes, as needed.
When one of your color sections gets too big for your box, move all files of that color into another box. As you find more information, you will eventually end up with boxes for each color—some¬times with several boxes for a color!
Tip: Do binders have a place in the color-coded organization system? Three ring binders do have a place. I will share several experiences with you.
- There were times when I was researching a complicated “brick wall” type problem in which I included a to-do list, maps, pedigree chart, family group records with research logs for the various families, copies of documents, and so forth. Once I resolved the problem, I wrote a case summary explaining my research and findings and put it in the binder. Then I stored the binder on its side in the box next to the family folder and continue to use the family folders for research. Label the binder with the name of the person you researched in that binder such as “Smith, John.” Why did I keep the research in the binder? Because I wanted the research, documentation, and analysis to stay together to review as needed and for future researchers.
- There are times when I have very precious, one-of-a-kind arti¬facts that I do not want to go in the filing system. I will use archival supplies and a binder to help preserve the artifacts.
- Once, we took a month-long research trip back to Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Washington, DC. I created binders with information I needed for each of the counties I was going to visit. The binder kept the research organized and together. Using folders in this type of research experience tends to get messy and shuffled. I had a binder for each person on the trip. When I came home, I transferred the information back into appro¬priate folders.
There is a purpose for binders, but I am convinced that for your overall filing system, you will do better with manila folders.
Tip: Do you ever use any other colors besides blue, green, red, and yellow? Yes. Remember that the system is very flexible to expand to your research needs. When I began research on the ancestral lines of my step-parents, I chose to use the color purple to separate my research. I set the files up exactly as I had done for my ancestors in a separate box.
Tip: What are your thoughts about including (living) descendents’ files? The system is very flexible to help you keep track of family in both directions, so feel free to include living descen- dents’ files in your system as well. I use the system to record and organize information about my wife and I, our children, and our grandchildren. I set up the family file for my wife and I. I then created a folder for each of our children and their spouses and placed them in the order of their birth. As grandchildren are born to each family, we add a folder and place it behind their parents’ folder. It makes it very easy for me to keep track of the precious documents and memories we share with our family. I chose to create these files and folders in blue, but it would be really easy to create a descendant’s box with another color, such as orange.
Step 13. How do I keep the basic file folder system updated and useful?
Once you get your basic file folder system set up, it is important to realize that it will continue to mature as you continue your research. The following are suggestions on how to do so:
Set up a simple “in box.”
- Any basket you have will do. Place new documents, emails, correspondence, and so on into the in box until you have time to file the items in Holding Files, Family Folders, or Locality Files.
- Take time regularly to decide where each item needs to be filed. Write the name of the family or locality the document pertains to in the upper right hand corner of the document—”Smith, John” or “Cumberland, New Jersey.” Set aside time to file it in the proper box.
Work on researching one family line at a time.
- Pick one family line. Make a to-do list of questions you want to find answers for. Do the research needed to answer the questions on your to-do list.
- Record on research logs the records you search and whether the record had information.
- Label the documents you find with the name (such as Smith John) or locality and file the documents.
- Enter the information you found into computer programs such as PAF, RootsMagic, or Legacy. Enter documentation into the “sources” field and make explanations in the “notes” field.
How to Add New Surnames
It is simple to add new families to your filing system as you find new information.
Let’s say you have a line where you know that Jeremiah Perry, b. 1748, Cumberland County, New Jersey, has a wife, Sarah. You know nothing more about her so you have her entered as Mrs. Sarah Perry.
One day while searching on the Internet, you find a reference to a Sarah Harris who was married first to a John Miller in about 1767 in Cumberland County, New Jersey. They had one child, and then John Miller died. Sarah Harris was then married to Jeremiah Perry in 1769 and had a son, Jeremiah Perry, b. 1770. That matches the family bible records you have perfectly!
The website goes on to give you three generations of Sarah Harris’s ancestors with good documentation. After verifying the information, you want to add these new families to your filing system. Jeremiah Perry and Sarah Harris are in your yellow line.
To add this information to the file, simply follow these steps:
- Make new yellow hanging surname folders for: Harris, Crosley, James, Hand, and Johnson—the five new surnames you have now identified. Add highlighted pedigree charts to the folders to see how these people are related to you.
- Make family groups for Sarah Harris as a child with her father, Jacob Harris, and her mother, Rachel Crosley.
- Then continue making other family groups and filing them for each of these new families.
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