Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paper Filing Systems

This post is for Cindy, Mommyof2, Dave, Brin and Emmie who all requested a blog post on paper filing systems. I am going to explain 4 different systems. The first is the way I do it, the second is the way the Family History Library recommends, the third is a MRIN* based system that Karen Clifford, AG recommends and the fourth is yet another popular method.

Method 1 - Michele's Way
I keep all of my documents in sheet protectors in two inch wide, 3-ring binders. The notebooks have A-Z dividers in them. I keep the binders on a bookshelf right next to my desk. I have the binders labeled like this:

  • Bible Records [copies and transcriptions]
  • Birth Records [birth certificates, birth announcements in newspaper etc.]
  • Church Records [rolls, minutes etc.]
  • Court Records [minutes, guardianship bonds, bastardy bonds, etc.]
  • Death Records [obits, death certificates, funeral cards etc.]
  • Deeds [deeds found in deed books, other land records are in the land records book]
  • Education Records [rolls, diploma, copies of yearbook entries etc.]
  • Genealogies [this is for printed Family Group Sheets and written genealogies I receive from other people that I feel I need to keep. For example, one of my dad's first cousins wrote a genealogy of her immediate family, her parents and her siblings, of one of my grandfather's older sisters. The person that wrote it was the last living child and her information was first hand knowledge and very credible]
  • Land Records [patents, warrants, head rights, grants, etc.]
  • Marriage Records [banns, bonds, licenses, certificates, announcements in the newspaper etc.]
  • Military Records [compiled service records, letters of commendation, rosters, etc.]
  • Personal Letters [these are letters that I have gotten a hold of that were written by family members. I have several letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother while he was in a Russian POW camp during WWII. I also have a couple of Civil War era letters. They are stored in acid free paper and in acid free sleeves in this binder]
  • Social Security Records [SS-5 forms]
  • Wills and Probate [wills, administrations, inventories etc.]
If a binder gets full, I add a 2nd one like this:
  • Marriage Records A-M
  • Marriage Records N-Z
You can easily expand this to 3 or 4 or more binders per type of record as needed.

I file the document by the principle person's name [maiden name for woman]. The complete source citation is written on the document. If I need to see James Elexander Simmons' death certificate all I have to do is pick up the Death Records Book and flip to the S's. He will be in alphabetical order there. All of his death paperwork will be in the same sleeve. In James' case that would be his death certificate and his obituary. I am sure you noticed that I don't have a binder for census records. I do not make paper copies of census pages. I save these directly to my hard drive since I have to access them from the internet anyway. If I were to have paper copies it would take up 15 binders just for the census records!

Method 2 - The Family History Library Way
This is the way I had my paper files organized for many years. It is a very organized system and it did me well for a long time. However, I found it a bit cumbersome once I was doing most everything on the computer. Here is the link to the method:
Organizing Your Paper Files Using File Folders
I did it exactly as described except I had my files in a filing cabinet, one drawer per line. If you prefer to use binders instead, then read
Organizing Your Paper Files Using Binders
but you must read the file folders one first because that one has the specifics of the method.

Method 3 - The MRIN* Method as Recommended by Karen Clifford, AG
I am going to refer you to Karen's Organize Your Paper Files website. She has an easy to understand, step-by-step tutorial. You just click on the genealogy database program that you use on your computer and she will show you how her method works with that specific program.

Method 4 - Another Popular Method Used by Genealogists
Many genealogists use their own number based system. Some use a simple sequential numbering system [1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc] while other break it down by type [Marr 1, Marr 2, Marr 3 for marriage records and Bap 1, Bap 2, Bap 3 for baptismal records, etc.] They label and file their documents this way either in a filing cabinet or in binders. Most genealogy database programs have a field where you can record this information. In Legacy Family Tree for example, when you add a source there is a space for a "File ID." This ties your computer file to your paper files.

You use whatever system works for you. The point of any system is to keep you papers organized in such a way that if you need to look at a particular document you can find it in seconds. Tomorrow I will outline how my files are organized in the computer.

* Marriage Record Identification Number

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. I can see that the binder method would make it easier to find a certain record, instead of pawing through file folders that contains ALL records of a specific family. Something to think about. But first I have to corral all the records that are sitting in stacks which I've used in classes I've taught.

  2. I have two file folders in my filing cabinet labeled PROCESS and FILE. I am scared to tell you how many documents are in those two files that haven't made it to binders yet :)

  3. Thanks for sharing these different approaches, and have considered them all. I have a question though on your system. How do you keep track of what info you have on a particular person, without having to search every binder to find their name? Do you have a master log of each individual and what records you have for them in a central place?

  4. Great question! I don't keep such a log but I do have all of this stuff entered in my genealogy program. In Legacy, you can look at the sources you have for a particular individual. What will come up is a list of their basic facts listed on the left and on the right you will see the sources listed for each fact. I can pretty much see everything at a glance. If I highlight one of the sources with my mouse, on the bottom of the screen it will show the complete source citation. For example, right now I am looking at this screen for Archibald G. Graham. Within the list of facts listed on the left I see:
    Marr. Sarah Brown

    To the right of that I see 4 sources [these are listed as I have them entered in the master source list, NOT how they are officially cited]

    Bible Records MS - Thomas Elias Graham Family Bible
    Census - Federal - MS - Perry Co - 1850
    Census - Federal - MS - Marion Co - 1860
    Marriage Records - MS - Lawrence Co (bound volume, certificate}

    If I click these one one at a time this is what I see:

    Thomas Elias Graham Family Bible, family pages; originals held by Joe Brown, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Summit, Mississippi, 2001. Copies of the Bible pages are in the possession of the compiler.

    1850 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 387 [stamped], dwelling 257, family 257, Arch Graham household; digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed 10 Feb 2009); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 379.

    1860 U.S. census, Marion County, Mississippi, population schedule, Columbia post office, p. 42 [penned], dwelling 288, family 288, Archibald Grayham household; digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed 17 Oct 2009); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M653, roll 586.

    Lawrence County, Mississippi, Marriage Book 1: 250-51, Archibald Graham-Sarah Brown, 1825.

    When I look at this I know that I have copies of the Bible record and a copy of the marriage license (I don't keep paper copies of the census records)

    I can go down this list and see everything that I have for this one person and it is all on one page. I use Legacy but I am sure that all of the top genealogy programs have this same capability.

  5. Thanks for this post, it has been a big help deciding on something that will work for me.